People are living longer than ever before, but the youngest among us have little idea what it’s like to get older. And at a time when extended families live farther apart and many adults have no children, there are fewer natural bonds between people of different ages. Yet no matter what sort of family they’re from, there are ways young and older people can enjoy time together.
One pioneering Seattle program is netting national attention as it celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2016. The Intergenerational Learning Center at Providence Mount St. Vincent in West Seattle is the setting for Present Perfect, an upcoming documentary film that shows how 125 preschool children mingle each weekday with the 400 older adults who live at “The Mount.” The film’s Kickstarter campaign helped generate interest from People, Good Housekeeping, “The Today Show,” MTV, and many more media organizations.
“When you’re young, you just never think you’re going to be old,” filmmaker Evan Briggs says in a TED Talk about her upcoming movie, which follows the funny, sweet, and sometimes sad interplay among the children and their elders, whose average age is 92. Tiny, smooth hands and well-worn ones work together to make a colorful cloth parachute jump up and down. A young boy repeatedly and patiently corrects a man who can’t quite get the child’s name right. It’s all part of life at “The Mount,” where elders delight in the presence of young children, and preschoolers learn about the aging process.
“Many of our residents are widows or widowers and can become lonely,” says Providence Mount St. Vincent administrator Charlene Boyd, who helped create the intergenerational program. “Their adult children may still be working, so they may not get to see them as often as they would like. Having the children be close by seems to make our residents feel as though they are still part of a community.” The social benefits run both ways, as the elders experience a renewed sense of self-worth and purpose as they become role models and pass along their wisdom to a younger generation.
“We wanted this place to be a place where people come to live, not come to die,” adds Boyd. “It’s about normalcy. It’s normal for someone to use a wheelchair or a walker and that’s just part of life. It’s not out of sight, out of mind. It’s right here. These kids see that every day and they’re not afraid.”
Play is at the root of intergenerational fun, and it’s a key ingredient in a new program that has recently launched at Spiritwood in Pine Lake, a Village Concepts community in Issaquah. Partnering with Lake View Music Together, the local affiliate of a national program, Spiritwood is offering ongoing intergenerational music experiences for children birth through age 7 and the adults who love them. Both groups benefit because music boosts youngsters’ brain development…and it helps keep aging brains young, too.
“The part of the brain that handles music deteriorates remarkably slowly as we age,” says Tracy Wills, director of corporate development at Village Concepts, a third-generation family business that serves more than 1,400 residents in 16 Washington senior living communities. This is true even among people in memory care, “who’ve actually been able to sing along to their favorite songs, remembering past parts of themselves,” Wills adds. The Lake View Music Together program dovetails with other musical offerings through Village Concepts University, where residents are able to take collegiate classes and even earn degrees as lifelong learners.
Travel is another way the generations can enjoy time together, and Road Scholar is a leader in this area, with 155 intergenerational trips listed on its website. Whether kayaking the Lower Columbia River, traveling to newly open Cuba with a college-age grandchild, or digging for dinosaur fossils in Utah, the trips promise adventure and lasting memories.
Says Mike Zoob, who has been on nearly 100 Road Scholar trips to 54 countries, “Time spent with one’s grandchild experiencing new things, particularly when it’s just the grandparent and grandchild, creates a priceless opportunity for bonding with and learning about each other. And then there was the pleasure of watching my granddaughter try things outside of her normal experience. I now have the challenge of staying in good enough shape to attend programs with my three other grandchildren. That’s something I look forward to very much.”
For more information:
Providence Mount St. Vincent
Spiritwood at Pine Lake
Julie Fanselow lives in Seattle and enjoys spending time with people of all ages in her part-time jobs as a ballpark host and bookseller. An award-winning magazine editor and travel guidebook author, she occasionally blogs at surelyjoy.blogspot.com.