When the new school year begins a few months from now, Judy Hamilton-Cantu, a senior director of a combined child-adult day care center in suburban Los Angeles, will brace herself for a round of complaints from children who have discovered that senior citizens don’t attend kindergarten.
Not that Ms. Hamilton-Cantu and the staff at ONEgeneration Daycare haven’t tried to prepare the center’s 90 children for this eventuality. It’s a hard concept to grasp for preschoolers who grow up thinking it’s perfectly normal to cavort daily with people who have wrinkly skin, don’t hear much, remember less and shuffle about on metal contraptions that look like portable jungle gyms.
For the center’s 160 elderly adults, time spent in the company of children can be a powerful antidote to depression and disability. When families and caregivers drop off seniors at the center, staff members greet them, assess their moods and physical states, and then help them select a combination of intergenerational or adult-only activities for the day. Not everyone may be in the mood to whoop it up at a (seated) dance class. Yet cradling a fussy baby, looking at a picture book with a lonesome toddler or sharing a hobby with an inquisitive preschooler can often make even the most disoriented or disgruntled elder feel appreciated and useful again.
When intergenerational day care appeared on the scene in the early 1990s, some experts predicted it would be the answer for working Americans, 44 percent of whom have both dependent children and aging parents. Not only did intergenerational day care offer convenience for families, it held out a promise to reduce ageism among younger generations and dispel what Vera Roos, a professor of psychology at North-West University in South Africa, described as an assumption that aging is nothing but “a kind of extended terminal illness.”
It is not a panacea, but researchers who have studied some of the country’s 300-plus intergenerational facilities over the past decade say the best of them provide some of the best care available for frail seniors.
Elderly adults participating in structured activities with children are more focused and in better moods than when children are not involved, scientists have found. Moreover, adults continue to be in better spirits after the children leave, suggesting the interactions may have lasting effects. Even adults with mild to moderate cognitive deficits do better when involved in activities with children.
Many older adults resist day care, even though it can delay or prevent a move to a nursing home and is less costly than professional home health care. A facility with children can seem especially humiliating. Some families get their loved ones through the door by urging them to volunteer to help with the children.
“The families tell them, ‘You have to go. The children need you,’” Ms. Hamilton-Cantu said.
Of course, not every old person likes children, and even those who do don’t like to be with them all the time. That’s why experts in the field believe intergenerational activities should be optional for elderly adults. It’s also important that activities focus on adults’ interests, not just children’s. A nursery song sing-along isn’t likely to have much appeal for someone older, but planting seeds or helping a child look for bugs in an elevated (no stooping required) garden might.
One of the dangers in any kind of eldercare program is that caregivers may “infantilize” the elderly, forgetting that, even with childlike needs, they are still adults, according to Sonia Salari, a specialist in aging and intergenerational issues at the University of Utah. Baby talk, nicknames, scolding, time-outs and silly décor may be appropriate for children, but directed at elderly adults, Ms. Salari argues, they are a form of abuse.
At ONEgeneration the staff takes pains to avoid such missteps. There are no dinosaur posters hanging on the walls of the adults’ private living room. And there is no public discussion of adult diapers or other subjects that might embarrass seniors. Elderly adults in age-integrated daycare programs don’t actually take care of children — that’s the staff’s job — but they do have an enormous impact on children’s lives, researchers have found. Compared to their peers in traditional preschools, children in intergenerational daycare programs are more patient, express more empathy, exhibit more self-control and have better manners.
At ONEgeneration, there are no etiquette courses per se, but every time children and adults come together for an activity — and that can happen as many as eight times a day — they greet each other with, “Hi, neighbor!,” and shake hands. Children have been known to spot elderly strangers in malls and restaurants and call out to them: “Hello, neighbor!” Sometimes they even walk over and shake their hands.