Each morning at the Grace Living Center nursing home in the small town of Jenks, Oklahoma, around 60 kindergarten and pre-k students file in the door and are met by a line of elderly adults waiting to greet them with a hug or a high five. In reality, this facility is far more than just a nursing home; it is home to two Jenks Public School classrooms and the site of a unique program for Intergenerational Learning. As part of each school day, the elderly residents and young children spend time together reading, playing, learning and sharing. Once a week, they get together for an ice cream social and twice each week they participate in what they call “dramatic play” which can include anything from dressing up in costumes to acting out different scenes.
When they formed this unique partnership in 1999, Grace Living Center and Jenks Public Schools was one of the few shared-site intergenerational education programs in the country. Since then, similar models have sprung up across the country, and the benefits of such collaborations have become more and more clear.
For the senior adults, engaging with the children helps to fight their feelings of isolation and boredom. These interactions have also helped to keep the seniors active, both physically and mentally, which can be useful to elders that are struggling to maintain language or fine motor skills. Remarkably, the Jenks program has also led to a reduction in the amount of prescribed medication residents consume.
The benefits to the children are even more compelling. Youngsters who participate in the program have consistently outperformed their district peers on the state’s standardized reading tests, and more than 70% of them start first grade reading at a third grade level. Students also gain a more textured understanding of the world as they interact with elders and hear what childhood was like for earlier generations. Beyond the advantage of having dedicated learning time with their adopted “grandmas” and “grandpas”, the children also learn the importance of compassion, tolerance, and understanding as they observe the challenges of old age. Perhaps the most profound aspect of the shared-site arrangement is when a resident passes on, and the school gathers all of the children to explain that one of their friends won’t be coming back. When a death occurs, the class comes together and creates a memory book, each child adding a tribute page with their best memory of the deceased resident.
Shared-site intergenerational learning programs are a simple and inexpensive way to add educational value, positively engage senior citizens, and build more social integration into our communities. What’s not to like?