Day Care For Kids And Grandparents, Too

Centers for old and young alike are catching on

Said the little boy: "Sometimes I drop my spoon." Said the old man: "I do too!"

The little boy whispered: "I wet my pants." "I do that too," laughed the old man.

Said the little boy: "I often cry." "The old man nodded: "So do I."

"But worst of all," said the little boy, "it seems grown-ups don't pay attention to me." And he felt the warmth of the wrinkled old hand. "I know what you mean," said the old man.

--"The Little Boy and the Old Man," from A Light In The Attic, by Shel Silverstein (Harper & Row, 1981)

Old people and children have always had an affinity for each other. So it stands to reason that a growing number of day-care centers are putting the two groups together, catering to a clientele ranging from 6 weeks to more than 100 years. "The children add a lot more life," says 86-year-old Winifred Thompson, who attends the Marshall Street Intergenerational Center in West Chester, Pa. She enrolled in the program a year ago and now spends her day making cookies, blowing bubbles, and doing calisthenics with 12 peers and 37 ebullient kids.

If well conceived, such facilities bring joy to young and old alike. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) has identified 89 adult-and-child day-care centers in the U.S. But there are probably hundreds more small community projects that don't show up on the radar screen, says Amy Goyer, who wrote a 1998 study on intergenerational programs for AARP (202 434-2218; Fees are $40 to $60 per day for adults, depending on the level of care required. Child care runs $100 to $250 per week.

The popularity of intergenerational day care is due in part to the cost savings of sharing a site. But the real attraction is the happy effect it has on participants. Kevin Brabazon, editor of Intergenerational Approaches to Aging (Haworth Press, $49.95), says studies show that old folks become more alert and engaged; kids exhibit less aggressive behavior and do better in school.

COMMUNAL STORYTELLING. Indeed, Bonnie Walson, executive director of Heritage Day Health Centers in Columbus, Ohio, says the elders at the nonprofit organization's intergenerational site "are calmer and not as confused" as those at its three adults-only centers. "They don't keep asking when it's time to go home," Walson notes. The children, who come from families that are homeless, thrive on the attention from "grandmas and grandpas"--who read, work on art projects, and even have tea parties with them.

"Older people need to feel productive, and children need stable, loving influences in their lives. These programs satisfy both needs," maintains Nancy Henkin, who is executive director at Temple University's Center for Intergenerational Learning in Philadelphia (215 204-6970;

But this happens only where there is actual interaction between young and old. "They can't just be facilities sharing one roof," says Brabazon. At Brookland Intergenerational Daycare in Washington, D.C., children and seniors gather three times a week for storytelling or to watch a skit performed by the kids. The Marshall Street Center in Pennsylvania features structured interaction twice a week--activities such as singing or making applesauce. But there is also "a lot of spontaneous contact," says Patricia Shull, executive director of Adult Care of Chester County, Pa., which runs the center. Adult participants might go to the nursery to hold the babies or just watch the toddlers at the facility play. Depending on the center, kids and seniors sometimes enjoy snacks together or share meals on special occasions, such as a holiday party.

Experts agree that an intergenerational coordinator is key. This person acts as liaison between the separate child-care and adult-care staffs, scheduling activities and laying the groundwork and ground rules for informal encounters.

The better programs also cross-train their staff, so they are equipped to deal with both old and young. "Each needs to understand what the other population is about," says Walson. Another mark of a good intergenerational center is architectural design that unites the two groups--such as the large observation window to the infant room at the Heritage center in Ohio that allows senior citizens to watch the babies. Windows that overlook playgrounds, large common areas, and entrances that require children to walk through areas where seniors are or vice versa also create a communal atmosphere.

HEALTHY OPTIMISM. Although some children may initially be afraid of elderly people in wheelchairs or attached to oxygen tanks, they quickly learn that "just because someone is old and disabled doesn't mean they can't be loving and kind," says Andrew Butler, a network specialist from Providence, Md., whose 2-year-old son attends Brookland in Washington. "My son loves it, and I like that he's exposed to older people who have so much to give."

But what of the frail elderly person's exposure to all the germs that little children notoriously carry? Goyer, author of AARP's study, says that evidence suggests the incidence of disease among seniors in intergenerational programs is lower than that in facilities that only care for adults. She speculates that the more optimistic attitudes boost the elderly participants' immune systems. It's one more reason that old and young make a perfect match.

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