The Wonders of Bringing Seniors and Children Together

As a longtime volunteer coordinator, I have known the benefits of bringing children and our esteemed elders together for a long time. I’ve wrangled teen volunteers at a hospital, laughing as all my senior volunteers lined up for the kids’ charity car wash. I’ve seen formerly sullen community service volunteers listen with wide eyes as one of my volunteers talked about fighting in World War II. And I’ve listened to senior volunteers who swear that volunteering in my dinosaur hall took years off their lives.

Now other organizations are discovering the enormous benefits of bringing different generations together in new and unique ways.

The Happy Laughter of Children and Seniors

At Providence Mount St. Vincent, a living care community for older adults located in Seattle Washington, a forward-thinking group of administrators opened up the Mount’s Intergenerational Learning Center, a licensed nonprofit child care center and preschool. This allows the facility’s older residents regular interaction with up to 125 children, ages zero to five. The innovative program has even inspired a new documentary, Present Perfect.

“We wanted to build a place where people come to live and not to come to die,” explained administrator Charlene Boyd. “Boredom and loneliness are the plagues of older adults. There’s nothing more delightful than seeing young children with noise, with laughter.”

The results are, quite simply, transformative. A recent study by Stanford University found that the benefits of bringing older and younger generations together have significant benefits for both sides. The study concluded that youth are more likely to thrive when their passions and ideas are championed, and those goals are often validated by older friends and family. Older adults often help young people develop their talents and knowledge, and can advise on how to navigate childhood and early adolescence.

The Mutual Benefits of Intergenerational Play

The benefits are not at all one-sided. Seniors often feel that a relationship with a grandchild or youth volunteer gives them a “second chance.” Active, involved older adults who experience an intergenerational connection also report much less depression, better physical health, and an improved quality of life.

Young people and older people often fall organically into the role of teacher and student, and it’s not always the senior who does the teaching. Children like to feel needed, and they can teach elders a range of new tricks, from how to program their DVR to searching for information on the Internet. Children can also help older people, such as those facing health challenges, how to see the world with fresh eyes.

“It’s just plain old happiness,” said Mount St. Vincent resident Harriet Thompson in a recent story for PBS News Hour. “You get to know them and watch them and act silly with them. It’s good to feel like you’re three years old again.”

Sharing Like Minds

There is also often a bond between children and much older seniors, because the stage of development and encroaching dementia or other physical challenges make the two generations closer to each other in terms of perception. In short, their brains are similar. It’s also a critical benefit to older adults. Forty-three percent of older Americans experience social isolation, which contributes to depression, loneliness, and physical and mental problems.

“I think there are things that both parties take away,” said Maureen McGovern, whose mother Mary is a resident at Mount St. Vincent. “It’s not a lifelong relationship but just for that moment in time, they’re both enjoying each other’s company and getting something out of their relationship with that person.”

Bringing Families Closer

Bringing Families Closer

In Denver, a powerful non-profit organization called Bessie’s Hope has been bringing different generations together for nearly a quarter century. By creating life-enriching volunteer opportunities for youth, families and individuals, their programs transform the lives of often forgotten elders and misdirected at risk youth.

For elder program volunteer Kathy Peterson, the program has given her a profound opportunity to teach her young children important life lessons.

“Visiting the nursing home with my kids did not disappoint,” she said in a recent newsletter. “My kids got a weekly history lesson, gained an acceptance of people with physical limitations, and learned valuable lessons in unconditional kindness. The unexpected result was that our visits brightened the residents’ day.”

Bringing generations together is a powerful and often unexpected moment. Back at the Mount in Seattle, more than 400 families are on the wait list to get into the Intergenerational Learning Center.

“All of us have a common need to be recognized,” said Marie Hoover, the director of the Intergenerational Learning Center. “All of us have a common need to be loved. We all have common needs to share a life. These children bring life and vibrancy and normalcy. It’s a gift. It’s a gift in exposing young families to the positive aspects of aging, and it’s a gift for children to see that frailty and normalcy are all part of that full circle of life.”

Photo Credits: Present Perfect

Last updated: 10.19.2018
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Written byClay Moore

Clayton Moore is a full-time writer, based in Monterey, California. He was formerly a professional volunteer coordinator with experience in hospitals, museums, volunteer centers and National Service volunteer programs. He remains a firm supporter of volunteerism as a way to give back to the community and lead a happier, healthier life. When Clayton isn't writing, he can usually be found at the Monterey Bay Aquarium or hiking along Monterey Bay watching the otters, seals and sea lions.

Coach Image

Written by Clay Moore

Clayton Moore is a full-time writer, based in Monterey, California. He was formerly a professional volunteer coordinator with experience in hospitals, museums, volunteer centers and National Service volunteer programs. He remains a firm supporter of volunteerism as a way to give back to the community and lead a happier, healthier life. When Clayton isn't writing, he can usually be found at the Monterey Bay Aquarium or hiking along Monterey Bay watching the otters, seals and sea lions.

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