Finding a sense of purpose can prove difficult after a lifestyle change, which is what happened for one woman after a move to a senior living community. Donna Butts, the executive director at Generations United, a nonprofit organization dedicated to intergenerational programs, related how they helped a senior who was very depressed after a move. Through an intergenerational program, the senior woman became a reading tutor for preschoolers.
“She told us later, ‘You gave me back my life,’” said Butts.
A robust offering of senior living activities, especially intergenerational programs, can offer your loved one a much-needed social outlet and allow them to find purpose and use their strengths. Read on to find out what intergenerational programs are, the types of activities you might expect in such a program, and the benefits of intergenerational programs for seniors.
Intergenerational programs involve a wonderful meshing of people and interests. They promote engagement between seniors and youth, from preschool to high school, for various activities and events. Programs may involve arts and crafts, seated sports, or mentorships depending on the age of the participants, and they focus on what each age group can bring to the other, allowing everyone to use their strengths.
“I feel like when the residents are around younger children, they feed off of their energy,” says Brandy Sweeney-Evrard, the life enrichment coordinator at Astor Place, an Enlivant senior living community in Astoria, Oregon.
Sweeney-Evrard began organizing intergenerational programming by simply reaching out to her child’s preschool. Although the pandemic has hampered in-person connections, seniors in the Astor Place community still feel very connected to the children they’ve met through the program. For example, on Halloween, seniors spent time putting together goody bags of treats for the children and watched the preschool’s Halloween parade over Zoom.
Even though the participants have not been able to meet in person lately, the intergenerational activities still affect the atmosphere in the community. Virtual story times are another way seniors stay connected to the preschoolers, and sometimes the children even send their seniors cards. Sweeney-Evrard tries to plan one intergenerational activity a month, giving both groups something to look forward to and allowing the relationships to flourish.
Some senior living communities may have intergenerational programming opportunities built right into their site. Shared sites, or neighboring senior living communities and child day cares, makes organizing intergenerational programs easy. Staff at senior living communities may need on-site child care or take their children to a child care center nearby. Having these opportunities nearby opens a world of possibilities when it comes to planning intergenerational activities.
ONEgeneration, an organization in Van Nuys, California, offers a childcare and preschool program for children and an adult day care program for seniors all on one site. In addition, their robust senior center incorporates shared site components as well, bringing together local high school students with active seniors. Jenna Hauss, the CEO of ONEgeneration, explains that their senior center provides an eight-week program called Sages and Seekers to connect older adults with high-schoolers. Many of the older adults who participate in Sages and Seekers stay in touch with the students long after the program ends, inquiring about college and career updates.
At ONEgeneration, adults who have a cognitive impairment — such as Down syndrome, Parkinson’s, dementia, a brain injury, or who may be recovering from a stroke — thrive in the on-site intergenerational program. Pairing these adults with young children allows them to tap into their strengths and gives them back a sense of purpose.
“Engaging with a child 6 years and younger helps these seniors feel like they’re still able to give back and that’s very fulfilling and rewarding,” says Hauss.
Studies show that intergenerational programs help seniors be more optimistic. With the help of youth and the vibrant energy they bring to a senior living community, seniors not only have something to look forward to, but they score better on memory tests and show an increase in activity and mobility. Butts points out how intergenerational programs help resolve the pitfalls that can occur when seniors only interact with other seniors.
“When people only live with other people their age, the conversation shifts to three P’s: pain, pills, and passing. What hurts, what medication you’re on, and who died. You can’t have that conversation when you’re talking with a 17-year-old. It really brings out other interests that the older adult may have or something they’ve forgotten about that they’ve always wanted to nurture.”
Intergenerational programs in senior living communities bridge the gap between generations and offer both seniors and youth a chance to learn, grow, and have fun with one another.
“There are benefits for every age group that’s involved in intergenerational work as well as their families and community,” Butts says.
Sweeney-Evrard notices an air of excitement that comes along with intergenerational programming. She fosters this by trying to schedule these activities after a meal, giving the residents a chance to talk amongst themselves about the upcoming event. Many times, this means a chance to spend time with preschoolers over Zoom, connected to a large TV so many seniors can participate.
“If you tell the seniors we’re going to have the kids on the TV, we’re going to interact with them, people come out that I wouldn’t expect to come out. Then they’re watching all these little kids and they’re laughing, and it’s just a chance to be playful and goofy,” Sweeney-Evrard says.
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Children who participate in a regular intergenerational program look forward to these events just as much as their senior counterparts. Butts recalls children who never miss school on the days when seniors visit — an intergenerational program can provide meaning and purpose to students who might be wanting for either. Sweeney-Evrard recounts the excitement of the children seeing their senior friends over Zoom. Hauss says that many children who complete ONEgeneration’s childcare program later ask their former senior neighbors to help with future projects.
Children also gain a great sense of empathy through these programs.
“When [children are] exposed to older adults with disabilities at a very early age, it teaches them to look at somebody who’s in a wheelchair or walker and not think any differently,” Hauss says.
A desire for this empathy and a positive experience can drive parents to seek out volunteer opportunities for their children. Sweeney-Evrard made a conscientious decision to get her preschooler involved in intergenerational programs.
“I want my kids to be able to come to places like this. I don’t want them to be afraid of older people,” Sweeney-Evrard says.
For caregivers, an intergenerational program can provide them with a rest from their caregiving duties while their senior visits with a young friend. These programs also provide something exciting a caregiver can talk about with their senior loved one. The change in routine can be a respite for caregivers and help them connect to their senior in new ways.
If you’re looking into a senior living community that offers intergenerational activities for seniors and youth, pay attention to how frequently the community offers these activities and what types of activities are available. Having children come to perform or participate in one activity doesn’t have the same effect and benefits that regular, long-term interactions provide.
Effective programs build relationships, and as Butts says, “Relationships take time.”
Instead, look for communities where seniors get the opportunity to work with the same group of children on a regular basis, doing activities that allow both age groups to participate.
Considerate preparation and planning makes all the difference in the success of intergenerational activities. Senior living community staff and the organizations they partner with need to consider the capabilities and backgrounds of everyone who will be involved — both the children and the seniors — and adjust planned activities accordingly.
While children who see seniors regularly have an advantage in intergenerational interactions, children who don’t may become frightened when seeing a senior in a wheelchair or someone who is sick. This often leads to seniors and children both having a negative experience. Children should receive preparation about what they may see ahead of the event and be comfortable interacting with seniors.
Not all activities are suitable for seniors. Butts recounted a volunteer’s unfortunate experience. A senior was working on a craft with children, and the teacher coordinating the activity asked the senior volunteer to tie a child’s ribbon.
“The teacher didn’t even look at the older adult to realize her hands were so arthritic. She couldn’t tie the ribbon. So she never went back to volunteer,” Butts says.
In order to have a successful activity, the coordinator should choose something that can easily be modified or is designed to suit both groups. At ONEgeneration, children and seniors play seated volleyball with a balloon or participate in appropriate arts and crafts. An intergenerational program coordinator sets up a work station for the senior and the child, giving them a choice to work next to each other or to collaborate on a project where the senior steps up and guides the child in the activity.
Since intergenerational programs emphasize what both age groups can bring to each other, you might question whether a senior with memory loss can participate. Seniors with memory loss work best with younger children or babies and actually have a lot to offer.
At ONEgeneration, Hauss explains that seniors can feed a bottle to a younger infant, read them a book, or even just hold a baby — this can reduce agitation in someone with memory loss while settling the infant at the same time. These interactions and other fulfilling activities enrich the lives of both the senior and the child.
With the pandemic still affecting day-to-day life, Zoom is a popular option for senior living communities that hope to keep children and seniors connected. In addition to reading, communities may send craft supplies to seniors and youth and set up Zoom sessions to complete the project. Playing games together such as bingo or even I spy are also classic favorites.
Zoom may not work for everyone, however. ONEgeneration offers drive-up events, distanced outdoor activities in nice weather, care package delivery, and even a pen pal program for seniors and high school students.
If your senior loved one doesn’t have access to a program within their community, you as a caregiver may be able to help them find ways to participate. Generations United offers a database that allows you to search for intergenerational programs in your area.
In-person activities are also easy to organize with close family members and friends. Plan a nature walk or cooking activities between your senior and younger family members. If in-person activities are not an option, connecting with grandchildren or young relatives over technology still offers benefits for both groups.
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Intergenerational programs offer many benefits, but it’s up to your senior loved one whether they want to participate. Some seniors gravitate toward working with youth, while others prefer working with high schoolers. Choosing not to participate could mean that your loved one just hasn’t found the right fit, though some seniors may just not enjoy activities with children.
Respecting your senior loved one’s choice should always be a priority. If working with children isn’t a good fit for your senior relative, look for a senior living community with other robust programming and other ways to volunteer in the greater community.
Butts explains that framing intergenerational opportunities in a way that shows seniors what they have to contribute to youth — whether it’s tutoring, mentoring, or even helping a young mother — can increase the chance that they’ll want to participate in such programs.
“Put it in terms of what they are offering and the strengths that they have, because intergenerational programs are strength-based. Everybody has something to give.”
Interview conducted with Butts, D. Generations United. November 9, 2021.
Interview conducted with Hauss, J. ONEgeneration. November 23, 2021.
Interview conducted with Sweeney-Evrard, B. Astor Place. November 2, 2021.
Generations United. “Intergenerational Programming in Senior Housing: From Promise to Practice.”
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