For being such an innovative, resourceful nation, there’s so much room for improvement in regards to how we care for our seniors. Honestly, we stink at it, especially in comparison to other countries. My career began in Italy where I lived and volunteered in a dementia care facility. I obviously expected communities in the US to differ aesthetically, but naively thought they’d run the same. I was completely wrong. I’ll save my list of differences for another post, but there’s one in particular that’s intrigued me since becoming a new mom: intergenerational care.
Sure, we have intergenerational programs in American facilities. We’ll invite Girl Scouts in for a craft activity and have toddlers come trick or treat on Halloween. At best, we’re doing these things monthly (though quarterly is much more common). So far in my career, I’ve never seen a program involving babies, and I certainly haven’t come across a shared nursery/nursing home space. In the US, there are allegedly ~110 such facilities (the majority being day centers, not live-in communities). In the UK, on the other hand, there are over 500.
I’ve brought baby Leo to visit my current and past assisted livings several times since he received his first round of shots. It was immediately evident that his presence was so meaningful; residents (both nonnas and nonnos) light up when they see him, even if he’s snoozing in his carrier. Frankly, he’s not much more interactive when awake – at only four months old, the most he’s doing is smiling, cooing, and pulling mamma’s hair. Apparently that’s enough because they absolutely adore him.
Human connection is as basic as our need for food, shelter, and water. It’s innate. Growing old, we know, can feel so isolating. Both children and adults can benefit from each other’s company. As a Stanford study points out, the elderly are one of the best groups to spend time with young kids, not only because of their wisdom and insight but also due to their patience and availability. They’re able to provide the kind of stimulation that little ones need to thrive. They welcome meaningful, productive activity and engagement. They seek purpose in their lives.
Today, one of my favorite nonnas’s purpose was to calm a tired, fussy Leo. Without hesitation (or my asking), she sang to him. She held his fat little hands and recited lullabies, as nearby residents (now surrounding us) chimed in. God, it was a beautiful moment – and it worked.
I’m still on maternity leave, so for now these visits will have to suffice. But I can’t silence this voice telling me they’re not enough. We need to do better on a much larger scale. Intergenerational care should be more than the occasional recital or holiday treat. Little Leo, we’ve got our work cut out for us.