For the elderly residents, the kids are a jolt back to the world of the living—and for the children, the experience is a bittersweet lesson on aging.
This article introduces a concept I've never heard of or even thought about before: the simple combination of having young children interact with older generations inside the same place.
The Atlantic article is a really good and smooth read - enough that I actually thought "Hey, I should read The Atlantic more often". It goes into depth about the Mount Saint Vincent retirement centre in Seattle, check it out here if you want to read the full article: The Intergenerational Learning Center: How a Preschool Inside a Nursing Home Helps Children and the Elderly - The Atlantic.
I'll just go through a couple of parts that I want to reflect on because it did make me really really excited to read. While I was reading it, I thought "I WANT TO DO THIS." :)
" Five days a week, residents and staff share the 300,000 square-foot facility with up to 125 children, ages zero to five.
The program was designed to counterbalance the loneliness and boredom that so often characterize life in a nursing facility... “We wanted a living, vibrant community; to make sure that this was a place where people came to live, not die,” says Charlene Boyd. "
I think the reason why this is so interesting to me is because in the last year I visited a nursing home a few times to see Mr. Human's grandmother and I also started babysitting. I think both these experiences made me see a whole new side to old people and also a new side of kids too.
In the nursing home, Mr. Human's grandmother is more than 90 years old, can't really hear properly and some would say "doesn't really seem to be all there." When he and I visited her, we just spent time exchanging simple sentences and she actually just spent a lot of time just sitting there. On other occasions when I visited with his wider family, she would once again sit quietly in her chair in the corner and look on. I was never quite sure if she was observing, thinking or just not really noticing much at all. It really was hard to tell what exactly was happening behind her blank stare, if there was a storm of activity or just not much at all. I kept asking Mr. Human what she does all day, if she was thinking about things, but I think the truth is that she really does spend most of her days sitting in her chair not doing a lot. In addition to that, she had her food made for her because she couldn't really cook for herself much anymore and had to have a lot of things done for her.
When I came back from Amsterdam, I started babysitting in Sydney. My first family had two girls - a 3 year old and a 7 month old baby. I think it's around this time I started to fully realise how cyclical life is. You start out as a baby and can't do ANYTHING for yourself. ANYTHING!!! Babies need you to feed them, to help them SIT up (they don't even have the muscles to sit up themselves, they just fall right over, how weird is that), to wipe their poo for them. Like literally the first day I babysat, my 3 year old girl went to do a poo and I heard her calling out after she was done. I looked at her mum like "Can she wipe her own poo?" and she shook her head 'no'. I wasn't surprised because it actually triggered my own memories of being 5 years old and sitting on the toilet with the door open yelling "MUUUUUUMMMMM, I'M DOOOONNNNNEEEEEEEEEEEEE." But imagine that, still a shock to think about how young kids actually do not have the physical ability and co-ordination to wipe their own butt. How crazy is that.
And so your parents do EVERYTHING for you. I think one thing babysitting has taught me is that parenting really does require you to change your entire life around this little kid. Parents quit their jobs to take care of their kids, parents give up their free time to do everything for their children. Because kids really can't do a lot for themselves, you gotta do it all. Like my 3 year old can't even eat her own noodles or dumplings because they are too slippery and she can't coordinate it into her mouth without it all slipping off haha. But then as you grow older, you start to be able to do more things for yourself, from your 20s until maybe your 80s. But then it goes back down. Things start to degenerate and you can do less and less. And then you need others to take care of you. But in our society, I don't think giving up your whole life (as parents do for their young kids) to take care of your old, aging parents is anyone's ideal way to spend time. Taking care of old people just seems a lot less appealing than taking care of babies or kids (who admittedly are more cute and energetic and full of life and curiosity).
"Humans are, and have always been, an intergenerational species. Still, to keep up with the demands of the culture and society of today, the responsibilities of child and elder care have, out of necessity, been outsourced to professionals. "
I think this follows on from what I talked about above and is definitely something I've thought about before. How, in our increasingly busy society where people just have not enough time, people tend to put their kids into childcare or put the elderly into nursing homes for others to take care of.
Oh, I just thought of something. Just as going through schooling from around ages 5 - 18 years old is a normal custom in society (and which helps parents a lot as they have somewhere to put their kids during work), perhaps there could be a school for older people later in life. Not learning the same stuff you learnt as a kid, but just learning wider things about the world. To keep people learning, using their mind, curious. That would definitely be a weird thought, huh? Haha imagine if the norm was to go BACK to school when you're older.
But I do love this whole thought around humans being an "intergenerational species". I think this links with how I watched a Ken Robinson TED Talk once about how it's almost like schools 'mass-produce' children on a factory line where our age is used as our batch number.
And after I saw that vivid illustration, it just cemented that thought in my head. And having after interacted with kids a lot more (I've really really loved babysitting) and realising that people who have been influential in my life have been from so many different age groups... the friends I grew up with who are of course my age, my piano teacher for 10 years who was 60+ years old and who I cherished a lot, my favourite teachers in high school who were anywhere between 28 - 60, and friends I've met since I started travelling the world more. I think I really do place a personal importance on interactions across generations.
" Another resident with advanced Alzheimer’s whose speech was incomprehensible garble was able to speak in complete, fluid, and appropriate sentences the moment she was wheeled into the baby room. “You could immediately see that she had accessed some part of her brain that had raised several kids,” Hoover says.
While it’s unclear what kind of impact such social interaction has on children, research suggests it may come with a variety of benefits for them as well. For example, kids who have early contact with older people are less likely to view them as incompetent—and simply exposing children to positive depictions of elders makes them less likely to exhibit ageism... As many of the parents whose children attend the ILC will attest, the kids are prone to feel more comfortable around those with disabilities and impairments of all kinds than their peers who lack such experiences. "
I thought this part was just cool to read about. I think I can believe how much of an impact this system would have because I think when people are around children, it's like they get a whole new demeanour. People generally love watching kids and their antics and how they muck around doing silly things that would NEVER be acceptable, let alone cute, if an adult did. Even after I babysit I always feel like I've learnt something about them or about children in general. So I can truly imagine the positive impact this would have.
Now I really really want to see this sort of thing implemented into places close to home. And will even keep this concept rattling about in the back of my head in case I ever get the opportunity to help make it happen.
NB: All images and quotes are sourced from The Atlantic article, unless otherwise stated. :)