MARCH 27, 2019
- Once multiple generations of families lived together or in very close proximity and shared the duties of caring for young, old, and sick alike, but now those who need care are tucked away in care facilities with their peers.
- Babies and the elderly in day care together may sound far-fetched, but it’s one of the most promising ways to help alleviate elderly alienation and expose children to a generation they might otherwise never know.
Should seniors and toddlers go to day care together? It’s a strange sounding question, but a growing number of day care facilities around the country say yes. And an emerging body of research suggests that doing so is good for both the young and old.
Most people likely haven’t heard of “adult day care.” Thanks to the advocacy of public figures like Senator Elizabeth Warren and Ivanka Trump, we hear constantly about paid care for the youngest members of our society. We hear far less about care for our eldest citizens.
Like day care for infants and toddlers too young for school, adult day care is for seniors who need assistance and supervision during the day and are seeking stimulation and companionship. It’s the result of our increasingly generationally segregated society. Whereas once multiple generations of families lived together or in very close proximity and shared the duties of caring for young, old, and sick alike, now those who need care are tucked away in care facilities with their generational peers. The breakdown of the nuclear family and increasing familial migration has only accelerated this phenomenon. Babies live thousands of miles from their grandparents, and aging adults live several states away from their children.
As a result, our society is more generationally stratified than ever before, making the elderly feel particularly alienated. According to one study from the University of California San Francisco, 43% of seniors report feeling lonely. That same study found that identifying as lonely comes with a staggering 59% higher risk of declining health and a 45% higher risk of death. In short, the epidemic of loneliness among the elderly isn’t just an emotional travesty, it’s a health hazard.
And while infants and toddlers are too young to know what they are missing without seniors in their lives, raising children in a society where the median age hovers around 30 is artificial and strangely backward. Researchers at Stanford pointed out that aging adults are one of the best groups to spend time with young children, not only because they can pass on decades of wisdom, but also because they are at a point in life where they have the availability and patience to do so and can provide the kind of stimulation that young children need to thrive. “Older adults are exceptionally suited to meet these needs in part because they welcome meaningful, productive activity, and engagement, “the researchers wrote. “They seek—and need—purpose in their lives.”
I’ve seen this firsthand with my own children, who spend woefully little time with senior adults, let alone grandparents who are thousands of miles away. Our Washington, D.C., co-op is filled mainly with retirees. One took my six-year-old daughter to her apartment and patiently spent time showing her how to play the cello. Another will spend endless time on the floor with my four-year-old son exploring his globe. Yet another let my daughter help her garden, where she happily pulled weeds for over an hour and learned about the garden’s history as a World War II victory garden. These interactions, while only occasional, have no doubt enriched my children’s lives.
Day care centers are increasingly seeking to institutionalize those kinds of cross-generational interactions in what is called “intergenerational care.” For example, the Mount Intergenerational Learning Center, profiled in The Atlantic, is a preschool inside a nursing home in the Seattle area. Every day, seniors and children do activities together, such as music class or painting. The center boasts over 400 children on the waiting list. According to a report from Generations United, a group that promotes intergenerational programs, there are 105 intergenerational “shared space” centers in the country.
The report found overwhelming support from Americans for such centers: 94% agree that the elderly have qualities that are helpful to children and 89% agree with the reverse. Nearly 9 in 10 Americans think that bringing together the young and old in the same care centers is a “good use of resources,” and a solid three-fourths think that “programs and facilities that separately serve different age groups prevent children/youth and older adults from benefitting from each other’s skills and talents.”
The report also features extensive research that attests to the many benefits of intergenerational care, finding that:
participation in intergenerational programs and meaningful cross-age relationships may decrease social isolation and increase older adults’ sense of belonging, self-esteem, and well-being, while also improving social and emotional skills of children and youth participants.
In particular, the research found that mixed-age care promoted sensitivity to others among both the young and old, with one mother of a preschool aged-participant saying the program had made her daughter “very empathetic, way beyond her years.” Young children who participated in intergenerational care had more advanced motor and cognitive skills, higher developmental scores, and more advanced social and emotional competencies than their non-intergenerational peers, to name a few, and older adult participants reported lower levels of loneliness, reduced agitation, and improved health, among other findings.
We can’t undo our modern reality of young people being forced to leave home far behind in search of better opportunities and families being generationally splintered across the country. But we can, as a society, support and encourage the movement to reintegrate the generations in safe and loving care facilities. Babies and the elderly in day care together may sound far-fetched, but it’s one of the most promising ways to help alleviate elderly alienation and expose children to a generation they might otherwise never know.
Ashley E. McGuire is a Contributing Editor at the Institute for Family Studies. Her new book is Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female (Regnery, 2017).