by Amy Lemieux
Some messages are worth repeating, and the inherent value of intergenerational programming is one of them! Parents who choose an intergenerational setting for their child understand at some deep level the great potential of pairing the youngest and oldest among us.
Our teachers understand this potential, as well. One of the commonalities between the young and old that makes their pairing magical is their ability to be totally candid without being offensive. There are not many seniors or young children whose thoughts do not pop right out of their mouths, and we delight in these interactions! No one means to be offensive and it is rare that offense is taken.
Our students will ask: “Why don’t you have hair?” “Are you sad your husband died?”
A senior will say: “Sit down before you tip over in that chair.” “Take your finger out of your nose.”
These matter-of-fact interactions, the small unstructured moments that take place within our structure, are what make our days richer. The aides in Willow Cove (memory care) have shared that the seniors enjoy their daily visit from the preschoolers even more than visits from their own family members! This surprised us and we wondered why. The explanation was simple; the children come with no agenda, no expectations, and do not pass judgement. Unlike family members, our students are not visiting the seniors to monitor their food intake, assess their activity level, or ask about their blood pressure. With young children, the mission is simple; to be together. With the children, the seniors can be social and enjoy the success of a simple activity without feeling like they’re under a microscope.
With some reflection, we realized that the very same thing could be said about our preschoolers. Pairing the youngest and the oldest in our society strips away the need to “perform” or meet any expectations our society inadvertently (and almost always) imposes on these two populations.
Quotes from a conversation in one of our classrooms illustrates this straightforward honesty that is possible when we strip away our expectations.
A teacher asked, “How can you tell that someone upstairs is a grandma or grandpa?”
-They are bald and have plain hair. We think plain is not a color.
-They’re wearing different clothes. Like a flower shirt or pink clothes.
-Grandmas always have short hair.
-When people walk, their legs hurt. I can see the grandmas when their legs hurt.
-Some grandmas wear glasses. They wear grandma glasses.
-They can sometimes hurt their hips and backs.
-They have owies.
-Sometimes they’re fat. Or just chubby.
-Their skin is soft and loose. Floppy, kind of.
-They have fancy chairs that can move and even go backwards!
Believe it or not, statements like these are one of the very reasons the seniors appreciate the presence of young children. Add to that physical touch, affection, and tenderness (a lack of touch is a very real problem for our elders), it is easy to understand the natural bond that can be formed.
The children add energy, spontaneity, and unpredictability in the midst of routine. While the routine is an essential quality for the young and old, the spontaneity is what’s enchanting. Even with seniors who are not always aware of the time, they have a sense of when the children come and the familiar routine is comforting. Said one grandma, “The kids come right before lunch, but who knows what they will do or say.”