Intergenerational Care and the Magic of Girl Scout Cookies

Q. Five years ago my friend Jennifer, who is 91, met ten-year-old Emma when Emma was selling Girl Scout Cookies door-to-door. Emma never knew her own grandparents, and Jennifer’s family lives 1,000 miles away. They had the most remarkable conversation about art and ballet that day, all while sharing a box of Thin Mints. Ever since, they’ve drawn close, spending time together on outings, and at home.

Emma loves spending time with Jennifer and learning from her and teaching her about iPad apps and other modern technology. Jennifer is equally as smitten with Emma, and appreciates the joy and positivity she brings into her life. Other members of Emma’s Girl Scout troop have followed suit and have made it a point to spend time with members of the senior community.

As she is getting older, Jennifer is becoming less and less able to live independently and her family is considering nursing home care. Are there any nursing homes that offer intergenerational programming, so Emma and the other Girl Scouts can come and visit and participate in activities with Jennifer and other senior residents? Given Jennifer and Emma’s wonderful relationship, I know it will also be beneficial for other residents to be able to interact and build relationships with the younger generation. 

A. Thank you for your question and for describing the lovely friendship of Jennifer and Emma, and other children in the community who have reached out to seniors. As you mentioned, and as research has proven, ongoing friendships between seniors and the younger generation are extremely positive, in that they help seniors have a more optimistic outlook, hamper depression, and make seniors feel like they are more socially engaged and needed.

At a time when families often live miles apart, intergenerational programs make sense. In fact, intergenerational programs exist at approximately 200 long-term care and adult day care centers around the country, and according to the Generations United Website, more programs are in the pipeline. Generations United, a not-for-profit organization that helps improve the lives of children, youth, and older adults through intergenerational collaboration, public policies, and programs, describes the goal of intergenerational programming as building mutually-beneficial ongoing relationships between the two groups, rather than one-time encounters.

At Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, the Neighbors Growing Together Intergenerational Program is the nation’s only university-based, shared-site intergenerational care program. Virginia Tech’s program offers adult day care that is located on the same floor as a child development center for ages 15 months to 5 years. While their space is separate, the two generations share a common area where much of the interaction occurs. They take walks together, play games, make music, share snacks, work on projects and visit back and forth. The activities prompt both groups to think creatively and work on motor skills.

Shannon Jarrott, who is the director of the Virginia Tech center, also studies adults with dementia. According to Jarrott, “[w]e think they can’t do much of anything, but they have been able to mentor and assist children with cooking, art and literacy activities. This helps both the developing abilities of the children and the diminishing ones of the adults.” Jarrott also found that the adults’ improved mood lasted even after the children were gone. In addition, for the young children, Jarrott and her colleagues at Virginia Tech found mixed-age initiatives enhanced empathy.

Similar to Virginia Tech, Providence Mount St. Vincent, a Seattle assisted living and long-term care facility, shares its space with a vibrant child care center. A popular destination for senior residents is the infant room, where residents can hold and cuddle the babies and the toddler room, where residents visit for sing-alongs, making sandwiches together for the homeless, and reading books to the youngsters. Older children often sit side by side with residents, while an art therapist helps them create collages and India ink drawings.

At Providence Mount St. Vincent, most of the doors in the child-care classrooms are kept open, except when the children are napping. Some have a window at the top as well as at the bottom of the door, and along the walls, so residents in wheelchairs can see what’s going on, and babies can look through and see them. According to Marie Hoover, director of the Providence Mount St. Vincent Intergenerational Learning Center, when it comes to senior residents, “[t]hese interactions are very home-like and keep senior residents’ minds alert.” When it comes to the children, “[f]amily members and teachers say youngsters exposed to intergenerational programming are age-blind, as likely to call an 80-year-old their friend as a 4-year-old peer. Parents tell me they (the children) are so comfortable with people of different ages and abilities, and they don’t fear when they look or speak differently.”

Another example of a successful intergenerational program is at Judson Retirement Living Facility in Cleveland, Ohio. Each month, more than 500 students visit the facility to take part in joint school-curriculum-based art, music, and environmental projects, and residents tutor math and reading in the city’s elementary and middle schools. Residents and students also attend cultural events together and sing together in a choir. “Bravo” to intergenerational opportunities, says Patience Hoskins, an 82-year-old Judson resident, “It makes me feel younger to interact with young people, and it beats the day-to-day routine!”

For more details on Intergenerational Programming in Virginia, please read this memo from the Commonwealth of Virginia Agency on Aging and view the Virginia Fact Sheet on the Generations United Website.

Do you have a loved one, such as Jennifer from our example, who is nearing the need for long-term care or already receiving long-term care? Whether you are looking for a facility that has intergenerational programming or not, if you have not done Long-Term Care Planning, Estate Planning or Incapacity Planning (or had your Planning documents reviewed in the past several years), now is the time. Please call The Fairfax and Fredericksburg Medicaid Asset Protection Law Firm of Evan H. Farr, P.C. at 703-691-1888 in Fairfax or 540-479-1435 in Fredericksburg to make an appointment for an introductory consultation.

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