The Benefits of Intergenerational Programs

A three-year-old sits on a sofa with an octogenarian, reading a Dr. Seuss book. At a table nearby, several preschoolers and elderly people chat while eating their snacks. Later that afternoon, the children have a music and movement class using multi-colored, floaty scarves; several seniors decide to join in, some while standing, some from their wheelchairs.

This is the Intergenerational Learning Center (ILC) in West Seattle, Washington. In a building that houses more than 400 older adults, the center also serves approximately 120 children ranging in age from 6 weeks to 6 years. The center has been in operation since 1991 and is the subject of a documentary film currently in production, Present Perfect.

And the ILC is not the only one of its kind. There is a list of award-winning intergenerational programs on Generations United, located on the east coast, west coast, and several states in between. The JEWEL program, for example, in Mount Kisco, NY, brings children from the Mount Kisco Child Care Center together with their “grandmas” and “grandpas” from My Second Home, an adult day care center, every day for a variety of activities.

Research shows that programs such as these benefit both the children and the older adults. Participating children often exhibit higher self-esteem, improved behaviors, and stronger social-emotional skills. The warm, caring relationships forged with older adults provide an opportunity for mentoring and positive vocabulary development.

Elderly participants in these programs report feeling happier and less isolated. They have improved health outcomes, and those diagnosed with dementia exhibit more positive affect. A Duke University study found that older adults who are engaged in social and community activities maintain their mental and physical health longer than other older adults.

As our population ages, we need to expand access to programs such as these. Approximately 14% of the United States is 65 or older; by 2030, that percentage is expected to grow to 19%. While one million Americans live in assisted-living facilities today, that number is expected to double by 2030. There are also numerous eldercare/adult day care programs offered in communities throughout the nation.

Most of us recognize the strong bond that can exist between a child and a grandparent. My children were lucky enough to grow up with several grandparents, and they enjoy(ed) special relationships with each of them. An older adult can often share not only encouragement and warmth, but also wisdom and experience. Seniors can serve as both role models and inspiration.

Intergenerational programming must be intentional and well-planned. It is not as simple as housing an early childhood educational facility on the grounds of an assisted living or eldercare facility. Opportunities for interaction should be designed to be mutually beneficial, incorporating music and art, physical activity, literacy and storytelling, among other things. In addition, all participants should feel safe and respected at all times.

In Rhode Island, the Alliance for Better Long Term Care has been running an intergenerational program, Building Bridges, for 26 years. School-age children and teenagers visit nursing homes throughout the state from one to two times each month, enabling them to develop relationships with the residents. Joann Leonard, Operations Officer and the founder of the program, told me she loves her job: “Every time I see the kids and the seniors together, I know I’ve made a difference in someone’s life.”

Unfortunately, due to budget cuts, the number of schools participating in the program has dropped from 50 to 12. Ocean Tides School brings their students to Scallop Shell Nursing and Rehabilitation Center every two weeks; both the boys and the residents look forward to their rousing game of basketball. Peace Dale Elementary School students visit their local nursing home once each month; some of the students have built such strong relationships with the residents that their families have invited them to dinner, and a few of them have even gone to visit before the prom!

Leonard points out that the Building Bridges program is beneficial to all involved. Nursing home residents may not have regular visitors because their families may be out of town or they may have few living relatives; having visits from young people gives them something to look forward to and helps them pass the day joyfully. The young visitors gain an appreciation and respect for their elders. They may also become more understanding of various disabilities.

However, Rhode Island has no early childhood education facilities that are involved in intergenerational partnerships. Part of the reason may be proximity; after all, it is much easier to visit an eldercare facility or nursing home regularly if the children do not need bus transportation to get there. While some schools practice community outreach by sending students to sing with or read to nursing home residents periodically, those visits do not facilitate the warm and ongoing relationships fostered by regular interactions with the same people.

Joan Kwiatkowski, CEO of PACE Organization and CareLink, says, “While there are inherent challenges to intergenerational programs, such as health regulations and transportation issues, they do provide benefits to the children, the seniors, and the larger community.“ ILC in Seattle has solved some of these problems by housing an early childhood center on the same campus with an eldercare facility, and advertising both programs as part of an intergenerational partnership. Maybe instead of viewing problems as insurmountable, we should all look for creative solutions.

This post also appeared at GoLocalProv.

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