Sitting in a circle with others, Emmit Jones and George Neal took turns thwacking a beach ball with foam noodles. Both Jones, 4, and Neal, who couldn’t immediately recall his age but said it was “not a long way over 40,” delighted each time the ball bounced their direction, provoking more wallops with the floppy noodles, some of which connected with Neal’s noggin.
“He must have hit me in the head 20 times,” Neal said with a laugh. “I enjoy teaching the children different things. I do my best to let them know where I fit in, too.”
Jones and Neal, age 76, according to a caregiver, are two participants in a yet-to-be-named intergenerational program that brings together seniors — many with early- or mid-stage dementia — and children ages 3 to 6 for interactions twice per day. The program launched May 1. It is the collaborative effort of Thelma’s Place Day Respite and Whoopsy Daisy Child Care in Redmond. The two nonprofits share a building near St. Charles Redmond with Country Side Living, a full-time, assisted-living residence, and some of its tenants also participate.
The seniors and kids usually connect in a common area or on field trips to places such as the High Desert Museum, an alpaca farm or a thrift store. While Gentog, another intergenerational program, has operated in Tigard since 2008, Redmond’s is the only program in Oregon east of the Cascades.
Intergenerational day care is a concept that gained traction in the early 1980s. Now, more than 500 such programs operate throughout the country, according to Generations United, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit concerned with family research and advocacy that was founded in 1986. Donna Butts, the organization’s executive director, said these intergenerational relationships are reciprocal — the benefits also extend to families and local communities.
“Our goal is to connect the senior generation with children,” said Stephanie Roderick, executive director of Thelma’s Place and Whoopsy Daisy. “Just being around the sight of someone in a wheelchair or someone with an oxygen tank — it wasn’t something that you felt real comfortable as a child. So a big part is just getting (children) used to the aging process itself. It creates empathy in the younger generations.”
Beginning June 19, the two programs will host Camp Thelma’s, a summer day camp where children and seniors — or “grandpals” — will take part in a variety of play-themed activities and outings.
“When children are around older adults, (studies have shown that) they learn to be more patient and are more likely to share. They say thank you and please because older people are more willing to remind them to do that,” Butts said. “They look at people who are different than them and see them as friends, not as different. They’re not put off by wheelchairs or walkers or wrinkles. They think somebody who is 7 or 70 could be their friend.”
In collaboration with the Eisner Foundation, Generations United surveyed more than 2,000 American adults, in which 53 percent said they don’t get to spend time with people outside their family that are much younger or older, according to a report released this month.
Two in 3 adults wished they could spend more time with other groups, and 3 in 4 wish their communities had more multi-generational centers, parks or some way they could connect with other generations.
“People want to be together with other generations. They realize it’s healthier for them. When older adults are only with older adults, I always say they are only talking about the three P’s: pain, pills and passing. What hurts, who died and what medication they’re on. But when they’re around other generations, conversations are much deeper and richer and much healthier.”
On this recent morning, Whoopsy Daisy caregivers lead a stream of children from their day room down the hall to Thelma’s Place, a part-time, full-time and drop-in respite center for seniors. A dementia diagnosis is not required to participate. In a brightly lit dining and meeting room area, the children took miniature seats on either side of four seniors, who greeted them warmly.
“Dakota (Stevens), this is George,” said Shana Franco, a caregiver, in way of introduction to Neal, a retired UPS employee who, like the other seniors, wore a name tag that indicated his hometown and former occupation. “Give him five,” Franco said.
Neal stuck out his hand, but the overall-clad boy with a shy demeanor didn’t reciprocate. This was Neal’s second day participating in the intergenerational program. During the morning session, the children and seniors sang along to “Yellow Submarine” and danced to “The Hokey Pokey.” Donna Bartley, 79, sat next to a sandy-haired boy, whom she encouraged to dance with her alongside their chairs.
“The more they dance, the more they love it,” Bartley said, adding that her companion was becoming particularly adept. “I just love all the children. They are so sweet.”
Asked if she had children of her own, Bartley said she didn’t. When a Thelma’s Place employee reminded her that the turquoise-colored earrings she wore were a gift from a son, her face flickered in recognition before she returned her attention to her pint-sized dance partner.
Roderick said these drop-in interactions not only stimulate seniors but offer respite to their caregivers, who are often overburdened family members.
“Being stuck at home is a vicious cycle for dementia patients,” Roderick said. The lack of interaction accelerates depression and fosters inactivity, which speeds up physical deterioration, she said.
“(These seniors) are pretty high-functioning. If you saw them walking down the street, you probably wouldn’t know they had dementia until you had a conversation with them,” Roderick said. “But 99 percent of these folks love children, and when a child walks into their presence, there is an immediate glow, a smile and an (out-stretched) hand. It’s pretty awesome.”
Emit, whose grandmother is a program coordinator at Thelma’s Place, spoke in bursts about a recent field trip with the grandpals to a pizzeria.
“I didn’t want to leave there!” he said, grinning. There, he’d struck up a rapport with Neal, who took to calling him “a lil’ feller” and treated him to a fruit-flavored sucker. The two enjoy finger painting together.
“You’ll watch special connections begin to grow,” Franco said, adding how similar personalities will recognize each other despite decades in age difference.
Ruby Hopper, 6, had costumed herself in a pink cape, tutu and purple sequin vest. She said she feels “happy. Happy-happy!” when she spends time with her grandpals, who have taught her how to play Tic-Tac-Toe, a now-favorite game. Sitting at the same table, Shilo Bright, 4, inspires seniors with her love of drawing, prompting those who typically don’t doodle to join in, caregivers said. In fact, children often serve as an appreciative audience.
Ken Porter, 85, is originally from Berkeley, California, where he enjoyed a career as a school psychologist, and previously sang in a quartet called “Vocal Seniority” — “not ‘Vocal Senility,’” he said with a wink. On this afternoon, he performed a song called “Don’t you worry about getting old” that included the lyrics:
“Even though I’m wrinkled, and gained a little weight, gee, I still got it all/Singing with the gang every Saturday night, I feel about 10 feet tall,” crooned Porter. “You may think my days are numbered, you may think my life is done/Well you’re wrong, ‘cause I’m still havin’ fun.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7816, firstname.lastname@example.org