“Say goodbye to the grandmas and grandpas,” the teacher says, giving 18-month-old Harrison a slight nudge forward. Harrison puts his small, soft, chubby hands into larger hands wrinkled from an entire lifetime — 104 years to be exact. The grandma smiles at Harrison. He stares at her, looking curiously at the deep lines in her face.
As short as the interaction is, it can mean so much. For the senior, it brings joy and a remembrance of yesteryear. For Harrison, it’s an education and introduction to elderly people.
This intergenerational interaction happens weekly between residents and children at Bayview Retirement Community in lower Queen Anne (11 W. Aloha St.).
The site used to be home of the George Kinnear mansion. When Kinnear’s son Charles died, he willed the land to be used for seniors or children. Today, it’s used for both. Bayview opened its child-care center in 1995, and now cares for up to 44 children.
Removing the fear
The intergenerational interaction between the children and seniors draws parents to the day care, said Jackie Schooley, director of intergenerational child care. The children have formal interactions once or twice a week and informal interactions daily as they share an elevator with the residents or ride bikes on the terrace. There are also residents who volunteer in the day care.
Each week during the formal visits, the children do different activities based on age. The toddlers typically visit for 30 minutes, but the teachers look at the children for cues — if they’re disinterested, they cut the visit short.
“For our children, when they first come, they’re fearful of the elderly because they might be tired-looking, they might be scary [and] old,” Schooley said. “But as they have interactions, then they don’t fear them.”
As for the residents, simply the voice of a child can brighten their mood, Schooley said, and “get them to start thinking about their own childhood or their own children.”
The seniors who come to the interactions range in age from 69 to 104, said activities director Lynn Arntuffus; most are in their 90s. Typically, about 10 seniors attend. It is the seniors’ and the children’s favorite program, she said. It’s a favorite for Arntuffus, too: It’s the reason she wanted to work at Bayview.
“The [seniors] also get to do a little bit of mentoring,” she said, “Especially in their position here, they’re mostly being cared for — I see that as really empowering for them. It just really brightens their day.”
A ‘natural state of life’
The interactions with children and seeing them throughout Bayview makes the seniors feel like they’re part of a more “natural state of life,” surrounded by all ages, like a family, Arntuffus said.
“Oh, there’s that sweetheart,” a grandpa says as the children come in. He smiles and waves, his affection for the children visible. The teachers address the children and seniors, telling them they’re going to play with bubbles and sing songs.
“Can they sing for us now?” a grandma asks, and the group sings songs like “If You’re Happy and You Know It” and “Ring Around the Rosie.” They’re songs that span generations.
“Oh, what happened? Oh, ow,” a grandma says in pain as her foot falls off of the footrest on her wheelchair. The toddlers turn at the sound to watch.
“Oh, no, what happened to grandma?” the teacher asks the children. They watch as an aid helps the woman reposition her foot.
It’s not just the positive interactions that help the children learn. It’s also interactions like this, where children experience elderly people using wheelchairs, walkers and canes. That becomes part of their norm, and they’re much more empathetic when encountering both the elderly and people with disabilities, Schooley said.
Similar life issues
Marva Holmes, the preschool co-teacher at Bayview, sees the interactions being beneficial because the children and seniors are dealing with some of the same issues.
“Kids are learning how to use their bodies at the beginning of their lives, and as we get older we have to relearn how to use our bodies in a way as we lose certain functions,” she explained. “It can be frustrating, and we have to ask for help. And kids have to ask for help all the time, too.”
The interactions vary by age, Holmes said. She enjoys seeing the seniors hold and coo at the babies. For her preschool-aged children, the seniors get to share their stories and hear the funny things the kids say.
Because the intergenerational aspect of Bayview has been so successful, Schooley is working on plans to “beef up” the program. She plans to start an intergenerational exercise class once a month for 30 minutes.
Bayview is also starting a program called “Playland,” where they’ll rotate different groups of children through the lobby to do activities. The residents can watch or participate.
“I’m middle-aged now, and I get out of it that there are people here who are living their life to the fullest even up to their last days,” Holmes said. “I like being here because it makes me hopeful to be an older person.”
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