Christmas day in Minnesota I went with my in-laws to visit my wife’s grandmother. She lives in a clean, bright, friendly, and welcoming (though not fancy) nursing facility. I was thinking, while I was there and afterwards, about group care for seniors, and what it might look like. I’m not by any means an expert in the needs of the elderly, and I don’t know any of the particulars of how nursing homes are run. But some things I saw put me in mind of caring for young children.
The most engaging things in the nursing home, at least to me, were two large cages of little birds—different colors and kinds of finches and such. They were twittering and fluttering, and I thought, How nice! There, amongst the Christmas decorations and big-screen TV and reception desk, is something live and active and engaging! Wouldn’t it be nice if in addition to the birds, which you can only look at, they had animals at that the seniors could touch and and care for and interact with? Rabbits or guinea pigs or rats? (I know, a lot of people have a thing against rats, but seriously, they make amazing pets.)
I’ve seen first-hand what pets can do for a room of young children. A small animal that you can interact with and feed and touch is just so engaging! Children gather around and look and listen and talk and think; for some of them it’s like flicking on a light switch, and you see them come alive. I bet a lot of elders would get just as much joy and stimulation from animals as young children do.
And then I thought, why not some of the other stuff that we do in preschool to engage young children, to make them think, to get them to interact with each other? Why not have playdough and clay, Legos and blocks, sand and water, art projects and picture books? Amelia pointed out that of course many nursing homes do have activities like these—though it’s often an arrangement like “Clay projects every other Wednesday from 10:30 to 11:30.” In preschool it’s so effective to have these materials available for children to access when they’re interested—they’re not always ready for clay when the teacher’s ready, and frequent exposure builds interest and engagement and complexity of participation. There would be all sorts of logistical problems with having a variety of materials freely accessible on a free or semi-structured schedule, but no problems that preschool teachers aren’t accustomed to.
I was also thinking about how carefully preschool teachers attend to the sensory environments they create for children. At one point during our visit, Grandma Mary said that it was hard for her to concentrate on our conversation because another family was talking loudly at the next table—not to mention the TV across the room and the medical-sounding beeping from down the hall. As a preschool teacher I am constantly managing the sounds and lights and smells in a room; if I don’t, the children, who have less capacity to process and self-regulate than adults, won’t be able to concentrate and engage. I suspect the same would be true in a nursing home.
Because brains are brains, right? On the one hand, what’s going on in a 2-year-old’s brain is very different from what’s going on in a 92-year-old’s brain. But on the other hand, there are a lot of parallels: both a 2-year-old and a 92-year-old sometimes have important feelings and needs they may not be able to communicate, sometimes desire control and agency they can’t have, sometimes are overwhelmed and confused by what’s going on around them (though the 2-year-old is gradually gaining coping mechanisms while the 92-year-old is gradually losing them). Again, I’m certainly not an expert in the needs of the elderly—but the similarities struck me.
You could go further than just taking techniques from preschool and applying them to nursing homes: you could actually combine the two! Several people have told me they know of places that have done this, though I have trouble finding them on the internets. But imagine young children and older adults reading books together! Sharing meals! Playing and talking together! The cross-generational interactions and relationships could be incredibly beneficial to both!
Yes, the licensing stuff would be a prohibitive hassle. Yes, the children would be exposed to sickness and aging and death, and you’d need staff prepared to work with children and families on these issues, but in the context of a caring environment these experiences could be really beneficial for children’s development. Yes, you’d face all sorts of challenges in making a physical environment that would meet the needs of both populations and all the individual needs (though you know who’s really good at that one? Early childhood special ed teachers and inclusion specialists…).
The barriers are not insignificant. But I’m interested in the positive possibilities.
* * *
On the other hand, here’s research on young children visiting nursing homes with mixed results, and research that says intergenerational programs often focus way more successfully on the needs of the children than the needs of the elderly.
But I still like the idea…
Please, leave your thoughts in the comments!