Young and old make loving connections at intergenerational centers

August 1, 2013

Tricycles ply same playground path as wheelchairs, walkers


For Judy Sweetland, Fridays are special.

Sweetland, 74, is among about 400 older adults who live at the Providence Mount St. Vincent community in Seattle. On most Fridays, she makes her way to the Intergenerational Learning Center, the day-care center that's also housed at "the Mount," and reads board books to preschoolers.

"As soon as I appear at the door, they're coming at the door and saying my name," she said.

In Ewa near Honolulu, participants in a new adult day-care center also have the opportunity to interact with young children. The St. Francis Intergenerational Center, which is run by the St. Francis Healthcare System of Hawaii, is housed in a U-shaped building. The children are in one wing, the adults in the other, and they meet at the playground in the middle.

"A path runs through the playground. Part of the time you'll see tricycles running by, and other times you'll see wheelchairs and walkers," said Sr. William Marie Eleniki, OSF. As president of the St. Francis Healthcare Foundation of Hawaii, Sr. Eleniki spearheaded construction of the intergenerational center, which had its grand opening Feb. 28. She expects it will be filled to capacity — 50 adults and 88 children — by September.

Opening minds, bypassing prejudice
"I think you're teaching the children to be more accepting and less discriminating of the elderly," she said. "The adults love to have the little kids come, singing songs and doing artwork."

The Honolulu-based St. Francis Healthcare System also runs the Sister Maureen Intergenerational Learning Environment (SMILE) in a suburb of Honolulu. That facility, which also goes by the name of Franciscan Adult Day Center, can care for 35 people at a time and shares the grounds with a preschool and a school for grades kindergarten through 12 run by the Sisters of St. Francis. "The high school students have service learning opportunities with the adult center. Preschoolers will often sing for the adults or do some crafts," said Cheryl Tamura, development and communication director for St. Francis Healthcare Foundation of Hawaii. "There are some intergenerational opportunities; it's not as frequent as will be at the new center."

As a Catholic health care provider, St. Francis is committed to creating healthy communities in the spirit of Christ's healing ministry, Sr. Eleniki said. "It helps the seniors — people who go to adult day care live longer, they get involved, they read the newspaper and discuss it, they meet people and do other activities. Children — you're giving them a good environment, you're giving them a lot of good healthy skills. A lot of that positive reinforcement of being good creates people who are peacemakers who can improve our society."

Good vibrations
In Seattle, the Mount was established in 1924 and the day-care center was added 22 years ago. Marie Hoover, director of the Intergenerational Learning Center, said the center can care for about 85 children ranging in age from 6 weeks to 6 years.

"We were brought in under the idea of establishing more resident-directed care, with more of a family-, community-type feel," Hoover said.

The Sisters of Providence and Providence Health & Services own and operate the Mount. "The Providence mission statement is: 'As people of Providence, we reveal God's love for all, especially the poor and the vulnerable, through our compassionate service,'" Hoover said. "The children and staff of the Intergenerational Learning Center support the mission by supporting the loving connection between generations.

"Our service includes helping children to be compassionate, comfortable and open-hearted when interacting with people who are differently abled. The ILC children spread joy throughout the building and are part of the fabric that makes the Mount unique in the world of long-term care," Hoover said.

While Sweetland is the only Mount resident who regularly schedules time with the children, Hoover and her staff plan formal interactions and encourage informal ones. Residents are welcome to drop by the day-care center whenever they wish.

Lunch buddies
"Babies will be put in strollers or wagons and go to the highest concentration of people, such as the cafeteria," Hoover said.

"The older the children, the more specific the activity," she said. "One of the highlights is that our oldest kids, the 4- and 5-year-olds, have an art studio. An art therapist works with the kids and the residents in the same class, creating incredible art. Really beautiful things come out of that, and it's intergenerational."

Once a month, four of the older children join four women residents of the Mount to make sandwiches for a homeless shelter. "The children often instruct the residents where to put the meat, where to put the cheese, how to put that together," Hoover said.

The older residents are delighted to see the children, she said. "The moment they hear the kids, it's as if life got breathed into the air. There's light in their eyes, they perk up."

She has noticed that being around children can trigger good memories. "Occasionally you'll have somebody who reminisces, giving them the opportunity to access memories that aren't always present."

Sweetland said that every other week, four of the older children join residents for lunch. "We have four tables of residents, so one is at each table," she said. "They don't seem to mind being the only one at the table without their buddies."

Familiarity brings acceptance
The intergenerational aspect is a big draw for the day-care center, Hoover said. Parents tell her that interacting with older people teaches their children to overlook physical differences and limitations. "They really become very comfortable with unusual appearances and walkers and those kinds of things," she said.

David LaFazia's daughter Audriella, 2, attends the day-care center, and his wife's grandmother, Madeline Hansen, lives at the Mount. His older daughter, Emelisa, 6, attended the center until she started school.

"The girls always love being around older people, and I think a big part of that is their experience here at Mount St. Vincent," said LaFazia, a social worker who previously worked in the assisted living facility at the Mount.

He said Hansen relishes the opportunity to spend time with her granddaughters and the other youngsters. "She loves the children," he said. "Grandma's very social, but a big part about her stories, about what's happening, is her interaction with the children.

"One of the things that I think is really neat about the Intergenerational Learning Center is not only the scheduled activities that the residents have with the children, but also the impromptu ones, when the residents are walking in the hall and meet up with one or two children," he said. "I think those interactions are so important to the residents and to the children."

Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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