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September 21, 2015

Seniors and children at play: Homeschooling program mends the generation gap

Entertainment Homeschooling
Grandmother Grandson 08032019 Photo by Paolo Bendandi /on Unsplash


“Will pay for conversation,” a bald, 84-year-old man states with a laugh. His thick Brooklyn accent echoes through the foyer of the nursing home.

Then he looks at me over the rim of his glasses and his tone turns serious. “Honestly, I’m so lonely living here. I daydream about standing outside with a sign reading: ‘Will pay for conversation.’”

I remember his words whenever I drive past nursing homes or assisted living facilities. At times, it’s easy to forget the centers that house our elderly are full of more than sequestered sadness. Should we take the time to engage in conversation, the stories shared are remarkable, transformative and provide a direct link to history.

“My husband was a paratrooper during the war,” Miss Dora states, nodding her head. “That would be the second World War. He fought the Japanese and helped free 2,500 American POWs.” Her pride in telling her 95-year-old husband’s story is evident.

Ten-year-old Chelsea listens to Miss Dora while she colors. Yes, the “greatest generation” is dying. However, their stories are not yet relegated to history books alone.

Today, Miss Dora sits in her wheelchair directly across from Chelsea. Art books, markers, crayons, puzzles and handwriting workbooks rest on the table between them. For a moment, the gap between America’s young and old is mended. As Chelsea picks up a lavender-colored crayon, she listens.

Miss Dora is an enthusiastic attendee at our Organic Play and Learn: Seniors & Children program. On Wednesday mornings, I pack up my guitar, a colorful play parachute, art supplies and crafts. Leading a group of homeschooling children through the doorway of the independent and assisted living center, I smile. It’s only an hour a week, but our time together brings so much joy.

“Let’s go see the old people,” my 3½-year-old son says. I gently remind him to use the words “elderly” or “seniors.”

“OK, let’s go see the seniors!”

We live in an ageist and age-segregated society where people struggle to age with dignity and meaning. According to the Pew Research Center’s analysis of the most recent U.S. Census Bureau information, about 16 percent of American households include “two adult generations, or a grandparent and at least one other generation, under one roof.”

Outside of contact with family members who may live far away, young children spend quality time with few, if any, elderly people.

As a homeschooling parent, I have the privilege and responsibility to craft a curriculum that is not only based upon best educational practices but that is also responsive to our collective duty to mend tears in our social fabric. I want my son, and the parents, children and seniors who join our Wednesday adventure to benefit from the joy and wisdom that come from fostering positive interactions across the generations. Inspired by innovative programs placing preschools in nursing homes, the integration of a weekly visit to a nearby independent and assisted living center into our academic year makes perfect sense.

“Will pay for conversation,” the elderly gentleman laments. By building upon the positive momentum to engage, interact, play and talk with our seniors, he won’t have to.

We begin with song and movement in a circle. The use of classic nursery rhymes is central. The singing and telling of generations-old children’s rhymes awakens memories from long ago in the seniors who join us. For example, whenever we sing “ABCD” or “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” the faces of the more solemn participants brighten.

“I sang this one to my children and grandchildren,” one woman says. “You don’t know what it means to have you all here.”

Next, I pull a brightly colored play parachute out of my backpack. Wrinkled, veined and shaking hands -- and the small, soft hands of children -- reach out to hold the fabric tightly and participate in song and game. We sing about rainbows and colors. We lift up our arms as the youngest ones in the group run underneath the parachute and shout with delight.

Most of our time together consists of breaking into small groups. We color, practice penmanship, put together puzzles and talk. Last week, Miss Myrtle shared that she had been a professional ballroom dancer.

“Actually, I taught dance for 40 years,” she tells us. “I still love to dance.”

“Would you like to teach us a dance next Wednesday morning?” I inquire.

“Oh my, yes.”

Ten-year-old Chelsea looks up from her coloring project. Can she imagine Miss Myrtle, reliant on a walker, once vibrant, dancing, teaching?

“I’d like that!” Chelsea states.

The seniors are welcome to bring their own crafts, photo albums or treasures to share in the small groups with the children. I look for ways to draw upon their talents and interests. Yet, there’s no pressure. Some elderly simply enjoy watching our group from afar. A few of our participants nap while the children color nearby -- and that’s perfectly fine.

We conclude our time together with song and then offer hugs or handshakes to bid farewell.

“Give me a hug,” Miss Myrtle says to my son. He steps back, avoiding her reach. “I have lots of money. I’ll give you some money. Come on, just one hug!”

My little boy backs farther away, confused. Navigating cross-generational interactions isn’t always easy. I kneel down between them both. “If you want to give a hug, you can,” I state, looking my son in the eyes. “But you can also give a high-five or just say a polite ‘goodbye.’”

Then, I turn to Miss Myrtle. “As he gets to know you, he’ll warm up. No worries. If you like, I am happy to give you a hug.”

It’s important to empower all of the children with the affirmation they are in charge of who touches their bodies and how they say hello or goodbye to the seniors. I tell them: “If you want to hug, feel free. If you want to shake hands or wave, that’s fine too. Remember to be polite, speak clearly and look them in the eyes.” I remind them of this each time we walk into the center.

The director of activities and I touch base after our last visit. “Unless our residents have family nearby who visit,” he states, “most of them see children once a year -- when church or school groups visit to perform holiday songs.”

I nod. As a girl, I recall standing in front of old, slumped-in-chairs, graying and wrinkled bodies singing Christmas songs with my church youth group. There was little interaction. It was hard to imagine how rich and fascinating each of those individuals actually was behind the strange smell and sadness that permeated the space.

“Our seniors miss children, a lot,” the director states.

“Well, I’m here to help change that,” I tell him.

Setting up our program was easy. The call to the activities director, a volunteer form to sign and announcing our hourlong program to existing homeschooling networks didn’t take long. Certainly, one doesn’t need to homeschool in order to set up an analogous program, and such events can be set up with or without fees. In fact, it can be something that one or two families alone orchestrate. Imagine if every American family took the time to make simple, short and regular visits to connect with our elderly.

“Will pay for conversation,” the elderly gentleman laments. By building upon the positive momentum to engage, interact, play and talk with our seniors, he won’t have to.

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