LeadingAge Magazine · July-August 2017 • Volume 07 • Number 04

Strengthening the Generations Through Connections

July 18, 2017 | by Jane Sherwin

A culture of connection between older adults and young people can solve social problems, build friendships and help to dissolve ageism.

In a comfortable room at Patriot Ridge Community in Fairborn, OH, residents are seated before a large screen, preparing to connect via Skype with Greenview High School students a 45-minute drive away. During a lively exchange, old and young alike will chat about their families, what farm life is like, how they are using the newest technology, where they grew up.

In September, Greenview High will receive LeadingAge Ohio’s Social Commitment award, nominated by Patriot Ridge.

This partnership reflects the growing understanding that connections between elders and children, often vulnerable groups, are an essential part of our national health. We need to seek ways for these groups to serve each other, rather than isolating them and creating a rivalry that leads to ageism, according to I Need You, You Need Me: The Young, the Old, and What We Can Achieve Together, a May 2017 report from Generations United and The Eisner Foundation:

“We believe that we can only be successful in the face of our complex future if age diversity is regarded as a national asset and fully leveraged.”

LeadingAge members are discovering that residents are ready to help, and in turn, isolated older adults are strengthened by the needs and presence of children and young people. And as the following stories indicate, intergenerational programs need not be complicated, expensive or a strain on staff time.

Older Adults Go to Camp

Patriot Ridge believes its intergenerational Skype program “is essential to the well-being of its residents, and to the community at large,” says Stacie Ward, Patriot Ridge administrator. In addition to the Skype conversations, Patriot Ridge invites its residents to participate for a day in its children’s day camp, “Camp Ageless.”

The community, part of United Church Homes, provides assisted living, memory care, skilled nursing and rehabilitative care. In response to a challenge from UCH’s CEO, the Reverend Kenneth Daniel, to find new ways “to create abundant life for residents,” the Patriot Ridge leadership team decided to offer residents a day of camper life. In 2015, 20 residents joined in, reading to campers, painting and drawing, playing bingo, enjoying campfire stories and games, and “happy hour” at the end of the day.

“Much of the energy,” says Ward, “comes from the residents themselves, and the staff enjoy being part of the program. Even more frail residents can enjoy the presence of children in their lives.”

Ward says that while there was initial concern about overly lively children among the residents, this has proved not to be a concern.

“We don’t always give children enough credit for their sensitivity to frail older adults.” She described one rambunctious little boy who immediately became close to one resident, “checking on her well-being every 5 minutes.”

For the most part, staff have worked through the challenges of resident engagement with the day campers, says Ward.

“Staff have to be willing to give extra time to their office work when they are also engaged with the camp. Some long-term staff have also had to adjust to the presence of children around the building. But they know that the key is the happiness of the residents, and that is a clear reward of camp participation.”

Patriot Ridge shares the United Church Homes mission “to transform the way we think about aging,” says Ward. “We are teaching what it means to age in the twenty-first century.”

Partners in Education

Laura Lamb, CEO at Episcopal Retirement Services (ERS) in Cincinnati, OH, has a similar view of intergenerational programs. ERS has served seniors since the 1950s and offers affordable living and life plan communities in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. Since 2011, its Council for Lifelong Engagement (CLLE) has built on the experience and professional training of its residents to offer curriculum enrichment in 4 local middle schools.

The program began when Lamb reached out to the principal of her son’s school, and now more than 120 residents have been involved. Because Lamb and her staff know their residents so well, they can easily match up expertise with existing curriculum needs, rather than expecting teachers to fit resident experience into new subjects.

For a class in persuasive writing, for example, ERS offered a resident whose career was in advertising.

“He helped develop the highly successful ‘Please don’t squeeze the Charmin’ slogan, well known since the late 1960s. He joined a class in persuasive writing and taught students how to determine what an audience wants,” says Lamb.

Residents have designed a program on math in real life: cooking, architecture and accounting. And 3 residents created an etiquette class on dining, which concentrated on “dating, dancing and dinners for eighth graders going off to high school.”

Lamb says that while typical programs for residents tend to focus on “enrichment and happiness,” the CLLE “focuses on removing stereotypes of older adults.

“To influence a child’s attitude, we have to put a resident in a position of power, based on their life experience. We want the child to say, ‘Oh my goodness I met the neatest guy today, I learned so much!’ And we encourage teachers to be clear that a resident’s presentation ‘will be on your next test.’”

“CLLE gets to the core of ageism,” says Lamb. “When older adults connect with children through their lifetime of expertise, children learn that disabilities and walkers are mere externals. The myth is shattered that external things define us.”

Lamb estimates CLLE costs about $2,000 per year, for transportation and promotional materials. Employees seem happy to be involved. One maintenance worker, asked to accompany a resident to a class, was delighted, according to Lamb. “You’re going to pay me for this?” he asked. “How cool is that!”

Lamb says that ERS is happy to share its materials and experience “with anyone who calls. To succeed in eradicating ageism, we need to share the program widely."

Montessori Preschool

In March 2017, Wesley Homes in Des Moines, WA, launched an intergenerational Montessori preschool pilot, with 20 children and resident volunteers from all areas of the campus including Wesley Care, the skilled nursing and rehab wing. In September there will be even more children and resident participation.

Wesley Homes
Two Highline Public Schools students, participants in
the school’s Montessori program, learn to plant flowers
from an experienced gardener at Wesley Homes.
Wesley Homes donates class space and an outdoor
play area and snacks for the children. Photo courtesy
of Wesley Homes.

“The preschool is an alliance with Highline Public Schools, which was seeking a partner to bring the Montessori preschool experience to children unable to afford it,” says Susan McConnell, executive director of the Wesley Homes Foundation. McConnell worked with the district’s director of early learning to create the half-time, 4-day-per-week-preschool. Wesley Homes’ available space and willing and eager residents have made the first year a definite success.

Wesley is able to donate a large class space and outdoor play area, and snacks for the children, while the school district provides the teacher, teaching assistant and all the school equipment.

“The preschool is one way we keep opening our doors to connect with the community, says McConnell. “It’s great to see the wisdom and patience seniors offer the children, many of whom don’t have grandparents in their lives. And the children bring such energy and joy.”

Community-Building in Maryland

In 2010, when the Rev. Hal Garman and his wife Jan moved to Asbury Methodist Village in Gaithersburg, MD, they brought with them many years of experience in church-based community service. The question was, how would they continue in this work?

After hearing a sermon about the “cradle-to-prison pipeline” in which many area children were caught, Hal Garman went to work. He obtained the support of the Asbury Methodist Village administration, the mayor of Gaithersburg, and Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, and launched the Gaithersburg Beloved Community Initiative (GBCI).

GBCI began with a mentoring program for elementary school children, which remains central. Additional programs now include photography and nature workshops for school children, English language for Latina moms, and advocacy for youth resources.

As many as 25 residents have been involved in the mentoring program, with some 20 children each year. For 3.5 hours every other week, elementary students and their one-on-one mentors explore music, art, poetry, science, health, and wellness. Field trips to the National Mall have been supported in part by Montgomery County.

In 2014 Hal Garman received both the LeadingAge Hobart Jackson Award for Cultural Diversity, and the Gaithersburg Person of Character Merit award.

GBCI is funded largely through donations by over 100 Asbury Methodist Village residents, a variety of grants, and in-kind donations from Asbury Communities.

“Asbury’s leadership is very supportive of this program to support residents’ active involvement in bettering the communities around them,” said Anne Ellestad, GBCI’s director of pastoral care who oversees the program and its part-time coordinator. Residents have an advisory council, and Asbury staff often volunteer their time.

A participating resident, Janet Forbes, says her engagement in GBCI means that her professional experience continues to be valuable in her retirement years, and that she and her partner continue to learn. Says Hal Garman, “It makes a big difference to residents who participate. If I didn’t continue, I would feel empty. People keep on doing this until they can’t do it anymore.”

Jane Sherwin is a writer who lives in Belmont, MA.