You’re having a bad day. You’re feeling not so great and a little bit lonely. Suddenly, a 4-year-old walks up, grabs your hand and talks non-stop about the truck he saw on the way to daycare. Maybe it’s the touch, but for a moment, you see that truck through his eyes. . . that great big, beautiful blue truck. The day just took a turn for the better!
Similar scenes take place several times each day at Hilty Home. The intergenerational program that involves Hilty Preschool and Child Care, has been going strong for nearly 30 years to the benefit (and delight) of elders and their pint-sized friends. Both sides seem to gain from the relationship and it’s about to get stronger. Hilty Preschool and Child Care recently created the new position of intergenerational coordinator. Cathy Webb, who previously worked in the infant room, feels lucky to have been moved into the role.
“My number one goal is to develop beneficial relationships between the kids and our elders,” said Webb. “I think it will extend the lives of our residents.”
Amanda Dettrow, Hilty Preschool and Child Care director, is excited about having someone able to work on integrating both populations at Hilty.
“When I started here 11 years ago, I felt like I knew every elder’s name and a little about each of them. With our growth and increasing regulations, I don’t feel it’s possible for me to do that anymore. That’s where Cathy comes in.”
Dettrow says the State of Ohio loves the intergenerational model, but it’s very regulated. This can make it harder for the teachers to take students to visit elders, because they must keep their entire “group” together.
“Imagine trying to visit some nursing home residents with 12 toddlers,” laughed Dettrow. “Since Cathy is in a different role, she can go visiting with just one or two kids and really work on fostering closer relationships and maybe one-on-one friendships.”
Elders – A Wealth of Experience
Webb and Dettrow discussed an example to illustrate what could happen when elders are willing to share their life experience and professional expertise with preschoolers.
“We might have an elder who is a former firefighter,” mused Dettrow. “During Fire Safety Week, we could have that elder talk with small groups of children on safety-related topics. When we know our elders’ backgrounds we add a lot of teaching and learning opportunities.”
A January 20, 2016 article in The Atlantic, describing another preschool inside a nursing home, states that, “Numerous studies have linked social interaction with decreased loneliness, delayed mental decline, lower blood pressure, and reduced risk of disease and death in elders.” Socializing across generations has also been shown to increase the amount of smiling and conversation among older adults, according to one Japanese study from 2013.
According to Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a national organization that advocates for intergenerational programs and policies, there are approximately 200 mixed-age programs in the U.S. in long-term care and adult daycare centers. A Virginia Tech researcher who studies adults with dementia stated, “We think they can’t do much of anything, but they have been able to mentor and assist children with cooking, art and literacy activities. This helps both the developing abilities of the children and the diminishing ones of the adults.”
Many children at Hilty aren’t in regular contact with their grandparents because of location or job responsibilities.
“Lots of grandparents today are still working full time and don’t have time to do the traditional projects like baking cookies or playing games with their grandchildren,” Dettrow added. “These kids need exposure to older adults. I call it ‘old school child raising.’”
Creating Empathy and Sensitivity
Both Dettrow and Webb agree that relationships with elders help children become more empathetic with individuals who are older or who have disabilities. While the kids can ask embarrassing questions, especially of those in the skilled nursing area, the elders at Hilty don’t seem to mind explaining things like physical disabilities, hearing aids and wheelchairs. For the most part, the kids seem satisfied with the answers and just proceed with the relationship.
“We did have one gentleman who popped out his false teeth,” laughed Dettrow. “The kids went crazy. They didn’t understand why their own teeth didn’t come out.”
She added that her own son attended Hilty Preschool and Child Care and has always been very sensitive to older individuals or those with disabilities. She feels he learned that through the intergenerational program.
Web has only been in her new role a short time, but she is looking forward to hearing stories and building friendships between elders and students. Currently, the children are out in the elder care areas from 9-11 a.m. each day, but Webb expects a lot more interaction.
“I love my job,” she beamed.