If you live long enough that the years fly by but the hours drone on, just a spot of sunshine in the day is pure gold. And if you are young enough that you can still count your birthdays on one hand, you have plenty of sunshine to give just by virtue of being so "new." Over the past two decades, professionals in the senior care and childcare fields have started building a framework around this fundamental truth, creating programs to facilitate regular interaction between seniors and youngsters. The trend is growing, with about 169 programs now in operation nationwide (according to Generations United), bringing the young and old together to mingle, play and learn.
For 99% of human existence, we lived in small tribes, with generations at both ends of the spectrum in close proximity -- living, working and playing side by side, enjoying the benefits only they can offer one another. The presence of little ones brings out wonder and amusement -- as well as the teaching instinct -- in older adults. The little ones gain an early appreciation for traditions, storytelling and history, and they learn patience from the slower pace and diminished physical abilities of their senior companions. An added bonus: they find out there was life before the digital world dominated our consciousness!
Some of the intergenerational programs that have sprung up involve preschools and daycares embedded in senior care facilities. These centers typically house preschoolers on one level of the nursing home, offering recreational classes like painting and singing for an hour a day. Staff members get first dibs on the daycare openings, enhancing the facility's recruiting and retention, shortening travel time and promoting employees' peace of mind.
Other programs involve collaborations between multiple groups. Eight years ago, the Champion Intergenerational Enrichment and Education Center in Columbus, Ohio, was formed through a partnership between The Ohio State University, the Columbus Early Learning Center and National Church Residences. The Center benefits both children and older adults and provides a research venue for students from the colleges of Medicine, Nursing and Social Work.
Another intergenerational model used by St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, places 150 elderly or disabled adults of all ages with 95 young children who come after school or in the summer for dancing, concerts, baking and games, all shared in a casual setting.
There are also special centers where seniors are pooled with children who have been in foster care or whose parents can't attend to their needs alone. Bridge Meadows of Portland, Oregon, is home to 30 elders and 34 children and their mothers, where they share a common area for cooking, reading and gardening and sharing meals together. Children gain a "grandma" or "grandpa" who listens and guides in the quiet way only a game of dominoes can enable.
Seniors commonly say the hardest part of retirement and aging is losing the sense of usefulness, even worse than diminished physical abilities. But if you are the person who regularly reads with 4-year old Chloe in the downstairs preschool, then you are expected to be there. That expectation sometimes goes a long way toward restoring emotional vigor and warding off depression, even if it is just a spot of sunshine in an otherwise long day.
Anthropologist Margaret Mead once wrote, "Somehow we have to get older people back close to growing children if we are to restore a sense of community, a knowledge of the past, and a sense of the future." In our twittering, media-obsessed culture today, we can stand to benefit from this wisdom.