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Intergenerational Programming – Enrichment for Young Children and Older Adults

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Senior mand and child building with blocks

Not a new idea by a long stretch, intergenerational programming has been around since the early 1990s when even earlier research showed children who interact with older adults grow up with more positive feelings about being old. They feel more comfortable when with older adults and have more understanding about aging. 

American cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead once said, “Connections between generations are essential for the mental health and stability of a nation.”

Opportunities for children to interact with older adults benefit both generations, as evidenced by the evaluation of an intergenerational program, called Building Bridges, developed in 1995 in Jasper County, Missouri. Its purpose was to provide opportunities for children to interact with and learn from seniors as well as for seniors to enjoy meaningful experiences and relationships with children. The main components of the program were education, friendships, and caring. The program involved 23 agencies, schools, nursing homes, volunteers, 900 children and 500 frail and homebound seniors.

Education

The education component focused on helping children learn from older adults and fostering a sense of fulfillment in the adults who participated in the program. Seniors read to the children, told stories, helped with homework, shared life experiences, and taught traditional crafts.

Friendships

Building Bridges helped increase the children’s awareness of aging and develop a sense of caring and respect for the elderly. The program helped seniors share their life experiences and brighten up their days.

Caring

The opportunity for the two generations to make connections and learn from each other through fun activities was a valuable component of the program. Children visited seniors at nursing homes and senior centers to dance, sing songs, read stories or do projects together. Children learned about aging; why some people live in nursing homes; and why some cannot walk and therefore use a wheelchair. They learned not all older people are alike. The visits made the seniors happy and they looked forward to the next visit.

Building Bridges was evaluated in 1996 with a questionnaire given to students, principals, teachers, and volunteers. The results showed the program was well received and made a significant impact. Almost 90% of the children responded that the program was excellent, fun, a cool idea, and should be continued to expand to other communities. They said they felt good about themselves because they helped people “not to be lonely” and to have something to do. They felt the program showed people that they cared.

School principals and teachers commented the program not only helped children practice writing skills, develop a sense of caring and respect for elders, but also cheered older people up. Volunteers said, “Overall, caring, respect, enjoyment, sharing, making connections and productivity emerged as results of the program.”

Benefits of intergenerational connections

According to Susan V. Bosak, author of The Legacy Project, there are striking similarities between the young and the old in the rhythm of their lives. She said, “It is a rhythm that focuses not only on doing, but on the power of being that can be seen in the simplicity of playing with blocks or tending to flowers. It is in the essence of living that allows them to ‘exist in a moment of time that is the grand sum of the past, present, and future.’ Time is a comfortable companion; rather than being an enemy – rushing or stressing to fit as much into time as possible.”

A better community

Bosak explained, “If we can improve the standing of older adults in society, and nurture what they can bring through intergenerational connections, then we can achieve a better community with a better quality of life for all ages.”

Adults provide support to elders, most often to address health or physical limitations. Elders assist adults through experience, emotional support, and participating in the care of children. Elders can help socialize children, teach them empathy and character, and give them unconditional love. Children, in turn, can be an endless source of joy for elders, share affection and play, and provide assistance with many simple tasks. Adults provide food, shelter, clothing, and nurturance to children. A strong, healthy intergenerational web of community is a cycle of connections.

Benefits to children

Children need four to six involved, caring adults in their lives to fully develop emotionally and socially. Today, children often get too much peer socialization, too much-mediated contact through computers and texting, and not enough one-on-one, personal time with mature adults. Through connections with older adults, including grandparents, children develop a better sense of who they are and where they come from. They better understand what it means to have roots, a history, and a sense of continuity and perspective.

In general, children develop higher self-esteem, better emotional and social skills, and can even have better grades in school if they spend time with elders. Through sharing in an older adult’s interests, skills, and hobbies, children are introduced to new activities and ideas. By getting to know “real” seniors, children can look beyond the ageist stereotypes they are often confronted with on TV and movies and can become more comfortable with aging.

Benefits to older adults

Seniors who spend time with young children often feel a sense of “joyful freedom” – all the benefits and joys of parenthood without many of the drawbacks. Those who may feel regrets over not spending enough time with their own children or grandchildren, or mistakes they may have made with parenting, can experience a fresh start with a relationship in an intergenerational program. Active, involved older adults with close intergenerational connections report less depression, better physical health, and a higher degree of life satisfaction. They tend to be happier with their present lives and hopeful for the future.

Embedded pre-kindergarten and preschool programming

The SALMON Centers for Early Education feature a unique approach to intergenerational programming. Children have the opportunity to connect with the seniors who reside at SALMON’s adjacent Beaumont Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Centers and Whitney Place Assisted Living on Natick and Northbridge campuses.

Originally conceived in 1996 as an early education program for the children of SALMON employees, these centers are a combination of spontaneous and planned activities designed to bring the two generations together on a regular basis, providing a sense of community that benefits all.

Shirley Sherman, director of the SALMON Center for Early Education at Natick, said, “Our program is open to the public as well as to the children of employees. We employ professional educators who partner with parents to ensure a nurturing environment for their child’s early education.”

Sherman reported, “I don’t like to think of it as a ‘program.’ It is so much more. Residents here are visited by infants in strollers. Toddlers go upstairs to visit residents in their rooms. Bonds are established between generations. Our activities include only about four to five children at a time. They are paired with residents and work on gross motor skills or crafts side-by-side. One of our newest approaches is residents coming to the pre-k classroom and reading to the children. We encourage our seniors to visit at any time to see the children – there doesn’t have to be a scheduled activity … just come to visit. This is really a unique community.”

In addition, SALMON Health and Retirement also has an Adult Day Health program on Natick and Northbridge campuses, where, twice a month, children participate in activities with those seniors.

Sherman commented, “It is a simple formula – intuitive and should be second nature – We at SALMON understand the impact of children on elders and the need for child care.  We recruit the very best staff because nurses, clinicians, social workers, and others with young children can be in our Early Education Center while they work. Children need the very best we can give them.”

Lori Hanson, director of the SALMON Center for Early Education at Northbridge, said, “It is amazing to see the relationships children form with our residents. They get to know each other by name and look forward to the activities they share. When our pre-k children were leaving to begin kindergarten in public school, we had a celebration and the residents came to ‘see them off.’  Our usual activities include games and music – lots of music. Residents sit in a circle and we play songs both generations know. The children dance and sing along with the seniors. We have movement games that include instruments or ball playing … and then there are activities that may simply be sitting together on the front porch while enjoying a lemonade.”

The activities may change, but, whenever the youngest and the oldest generations come together, the results benefit both groups in measurable and imperceptible ways.

Contact Us

In addition to housing, health care, and early education, SALMON Health and Retirement offers support groups and resources for caregivers and family members. To learn more, contact us today by calling 800-446-8060 for more information.