On an overcast day at the Providence Mount St. Vincent nursing home in Seattle, you might think gloom emanates throughout. But inside, another form of Int-Gen companionship has been established, this time in a bit of a smaller package. Turning down the hallway to the Intergenerational Learning Center, an aura immediately overwhelms visitors – and it is anything but bleak.
Two problems have perpetrated the very young and very old in recent decades, and Charlene Boyd had a solution to both. She established the Int-Gen Center, affectionately called “The Mount” as a way of simultaneously providing high-quality pre-k and high-quality elder care. It’s proven a brilliant idea, with those on the waiting list now tallying in the 400s, as well as a documentary about the facility set to debut in 2017.
Every weekday at The Mount, its 500 residents are joined by 125 toddlers just down the hall. At any given moment, residents can stroll over to see their young friends, to interact or simply observe their play. Mary McGovern, 95, enjoys regularly reading to the toddlers, who equally enjoy her story telling skills. Boyd explains, “its bringing joy to the residents and joy to the young children. It’s like a magical formula that’s happening every day.” Int-Gen activities can be spontaneous or planned, from art classes to sing-alongs. When asked what this type of environment provided her, Harriette Thompson, 93, simply said, “Happiness…just plain old happiness. It beats anything else. It beats television.” That’s for sure. Older citizens are frequently found to be depressed and isolated, spending most of their time watching television or playing board games with contemporaries. This change of pace has been an invaluable change of pace.
In our common need to be recognized, loved, and connected to the world, solutions such as Int-Gen learning centers have struck a poignant chord. Amongst the growing list of medical issues and physical setbacks of old age, these children bring life, vibrancy and normalcy. In return, the children’s eyes are opened to the full circle of life. They have the privilege of establishing a comfort zone and an understanding with those on the far end of the biological timeline. “It’s a gift”, says Boyd. “It’s a gift in exposing young families to the positive aspects of aging.” The connections are real. Simple activities such as painting or making sandwiches for the homeless forge a mutual focus among young and old, allowing them to share and enjoy precious moments in time.
It may not be a lifelong friendship, but the value of these moments are unprecedented. Young ones widen their perspective on life, and learn how to interact with those who are different, while elders bask in a welcome distraction from the troubles of old age. They allow the laughter and energy of children to reignite their own vitality and help them through their mental and physical pain. Int-Gen friendships such as these have shined a light on their intrinsic value for all of humanity. Life doesn’t have to be spent isolated from those years superior or inferior. We all need shared experience, love, and connection, all of which can be found in friendships of varying age.
Humanitas and The Mount have shown that deep, authentic bonds can be found in Int-Gen relationships. In both instances, those welcomed into Int-Gen communities quickly lost all sense of obligation and charity, and replaced it with organic friendship, the benefits of which are universal. Everyone involved finds improved quality of life, acknowledging the humanity in us all and convening over one shared moment. Age has proven to be not a hindrance, but a catalyst to friendship.
The sentiment is simple, but the ripple effect could be huge, emanating outward in society, urging all of us to make connections with those wildly outside our demographic. It is clear we all thirst for the vibrancy ignited through Int-Gen interaction and, yet it is a resource largely untapped. This opportunity to widen perspectives on life, shatter boundaries, and employ our value in old age is calling for our attention.