Young visitors, pets bring joy to assisted-living residents in Central Florida
Research shows that regular interactions between younger and older generations are mutually beneficial.
A Stanford University study found that children who formed a bond with older adults — or those around the age of their grandparents — saw benefits such as increased self-worth because of the genuine attention shown by the adults.
The researchers concluded that the interaction had educational and emotional benefits as well. One theory as to why centered on the science that as the brain ages, it improves in many ways, including the increased ability to attach emotionally and to solve complex problems.
The older adults in the Stanford study also saw benefits, including improved satisfaction with life and heightened excitement at seeing the world through the lens of a child.
This research reinforces what previous studies also have concluded: Intergenerational engagement is good for both age groups.
In Central Florida, assisted-living facilities put this knowledge to use through intergenerational programs that connect the perks of both phases of life.
Ledmarie Rodriguez is the resident care director at The Bridge at Ocala. Earlier this year, she asked her children, ages 3 and 5, to make birthday cards for residents and deliver them to a monthly birthday celebration at The Bridge. What started as a way to teach her kids about their grandparents’ generation turned into a reciprocal experience.
“I saw how happy the simple presence of these kids made the residents, and I knew it needed to be a bigger program,” Rodriguez said. She reached out to Paola Lopez, the owner of Kinderoo Children’s Academy daycare in Ocala.
A partnership between The Bridge and Kinderoo has been forged. Children attend the assisted living facility to interact during the monthly birthday bash for seniors, and the children who do not attend make cards to send along.
The seniors who are able to visit Kinderoo participate in activities like reading with the kids and creating crafts. A Bridge resident even delivered the speech at Kinderoo’s preschool graduation this spring.
“The children were shy at first. Then by the third visit or so, they really warmed up,” Lopez said. “Between the children going to the facility and the seniors coming to the childcare center, both groups have formed a bond.”
This intergenerational program is an extension of outreach programs that bring outside visitors in to see residents at The Bridge, particularly since not all residents are able to leave to go other places. Some of the visitors that come into the facility are furry and walk on four feet.
A resident of The Bridge at Ocala gets a hug from a young visitor. (Handout)
Pet-therapy programs bring the affection and attention of animals to The Bridge residents.
“I believe that having pets and children around really helps residents tap into earlier times in their lives and the joy from those times. They remember when they had a certain dog or that phase in life with kids,” said Katrina Beasley, executive director at The Bridge.
The joy-giving power of animals is well-documented. Pet owners, including seniors, report less depression and feelings of loneliness. A British study found that seniors in assisted-living facilities reported feeling less depressed and more refreshed after spending time with a visiting animal — more so than spending time with human visitors.
“Even people who have their own families who visit often connect in a different way when animals and other children come in,” Beasley said.
Zon Beachside in Indian Harbour Beach opened in 2016 with a goal to keep the assisted-living residents connected with the outside community. Laura Bierbaum, the life-enrichment director at Zon Beachside, said she has been approached by outside groups who want to be part of intergenerational programs.
“We have a teacher who comes in with her son every weekend to read and play games with the seniors,” Bierbaum said.
Nearby preschools have come in to participate in activities with the seniors, often taking the seniors’ lead when it comes to what to do. School choruses and orchestras, as well as scouting troops, have also sought out opportunities to visit seniors at Zon Beachside and interact with them.
“The residents show the younger visitors how to play card and board games that they remember from growing up, and they are usually games the kids have never played,” Bierbaum said.
Zon Beachside offers specialized memory care for residents with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. For those residents, seeing young people has an even more profound effect.
“Sometimes the people you would least expect to respond to children have the strongest positive reaction,” Bierbaum said. “Their personality just transforms in front of your eyes when children are around.”
Other residents have a deeper connection with animals. When people move into the facility, they are permitted to bring their pets, and the facility offers pet-care services. For those without pets of their own, pet therapy programs bring animals to the facility on Saturdays.
“We truly believe that residents benefit from interaction with animals, and we want to facilitate that,” Bierbaum said.
Shannon Ward is the activities director at The Oaks of Winter Park, where intergenerational programs are a big part of residential life. Volunteers from elementary through high school are frequent visitors, particularly during the holiday season.
“These young visitors bring smiles and laughter to our residents. These intergenerational programs, whether scheduled or organic, truly impact our residents in the most magnificent ways,” Ward said.
Animal programs are also an integral part of life in The Oaks communities.
“There is a wonderful variety of animals that visit our residents, from hedgehogs to dogs. These special visits provide remarkable benefits to the emotional, physical and mental well-being of our residents,” Ward said.
Residents of The Oaks also are permitted to bring their own animals when they move in.
“We want to accommodate seniors and their furry friends because we truly understand how much easier a transition like this can be when you are able to bring your beloved pet along with you,” Ward said.
Whether animals are visiting or live in the facility full time, the positive influence on residents is evident.
“Some of the benefits we’ve seen are that the pets reduce stress levels and encourage wonderful social interaction. Above all, they bring so much joy and happiness to our residents,” Ward said.