How children and the elderly enrich each other’s lives

Seamus and Uncle Dan (WNV / Patrick Sheehan-Gaumer)

Seamus and Uncle Dan Berrigan. (WNV / Patrick Sheehan-Gaumer)

It was almost time for communion. The room was warm and quiet. A priest in a long robe and stole walked towards the back of the chapel, chalice in hand. He was followed by a woman carrying the host. Seamus was standing in the middle of the aisle, his hands behind his back, transfixed by the priest’s ornate garb. He was in the man’s way. I swooped in to pick him up and all eyes followed him as we tried to fade back into the woodwork.

My 15-month-old toddler had been well behaved throughout the mass. He sat on my lap and gazed at the stained glass windows, took in the unfamiliar surroundings and played peek-a-boo with some of the people sitting near us. I had put him down because he seemed calm and innately respectful of his surroundings. He did not run or scream; he moved slowly, peered curiously, and touched things and people gently. In short, he was delighted to be in this place and the old men attending and co-celebrating the mass were delighted as well.

We were visiting my Uncle Dan Berrigan. He is 92 and lives at a Jesuit nursing home adjacent to Fordham University in the Bronx. It is a welcoming and friendly place, but it is also a nursing home full of elderly and infirm men. A wake was underway while we were there, and another was scheduled for the next day.

It takes us three trains and three hours to get from Connecticut to the Bronx, but it is a trek I enjoy making every month or so. I love catching up with my uncle. I also love how happy Seamus makes all the elderly Jesuits. During lunch, Seamus wanders the dining hall holding two metal spoons, pausing to wave and giggle and chat. The men, Jesuit priests in their 80s and 90s, are frail and hard of hearing. Some are in wheelchairs and some walk with canes or walkers. They have no children or grandchildren of their own, of course, and there aren’t many kids who visit the place regularly. Everyone knows Seamus’ name. They are watching his growth and development carefully. They see him getting faster and stronger and more mature with each visit. They all remark on how well-mannered and happy he is — music to a mother’s ear.

As I watched my son work the room and heard the coos, baby talk and exclamations of admiration from every table — as well as his babbles, giggles and attempts at conversation — I wondered if there are places where elderly care is integrated with toddler and infant care. Can older people in assisted living facilities or nursing homes be close to kids as they laugh and learn and play? Can those close to the end of their lives and those just starting out enjoy life together? I am so glad I had the opportunity to ask the question because I discovered that the answer is yes.

Outside of Los Angeles, toddlers and senior citizens at ONEgeneration Daycare participate in activities like painting, gardening and reading together. It is win-win. A New York Times article about the facility notes that “compared to their peers in traditional preschools, children in intergenerational daycare programs are more patient, express more empathy, exhibit more self-control and have better manners.” You have got to love that, right?

And while the older people are not actually changing diapers or feeding the babies and toddlers, they do feel needed and useful and are often more focused and happy when the little kids are around. In a society that has no place for older people and treats aging like a long and unpleasant illness instead of a natural part of life, that feeling of purpose and belonging is rare, treasured and life-affirming. There are 300 or so similar facilities around the United States. The Murray Weigel Jesuit Residence at Fordham University in the Bronx is not one of them, but as I watched the elderly priests buzz and coo over my son, I wondered: “What could be more lovely?”

This intergenerational care model is not the only way that the young and old are converging in the United States. All over this country, grandparents are raising their children’s children. Because I have lots of silver hair and the crow’s feet of wisdom, I get mistaken for Seamus’ grandmother all the time. It irks me (not enough to make me dye my hair, though). But I guess it is an honest mistake. I am old enough to be his grandmother, at least if I had been pregnant as a teenager and my daughter or son had had a child as a teenager too — not an uncommon occurrence in this country.

Nearly 5 million children live with their grandparents according to recent Census data, which is up from 4.5 million from 10 years ago. The tough economy, incarceration, unplanned pregnancies, social services intervention, military deployment, mental illness and many other factors contribute to this phenomenon. It can be rewarding and it is definitely necessary in some instances, but it is a tough assignment to be one-on-one with a toddler in your 50s or 60s or 70s. As one grandmother told USA Today, “Kids are hard enough to raise when you’re younger, but when you’re older …”

Research shows that grandparents who are responsible for the care of grandchildren are more likely to be depressed or have health problems compared to peers who enjoy time with grandchildren but don’t have to get them to school every morning, chase them around every afternoon and tuck them in every night. It is interesting to view that data against the backdrop of the positive impact for older people of programs like ONEgeneration, where they interact with and relate to young children, but are not primarily responsible for their upbringing.

At ONEgeneration, the kids and seniors call each other “neighbor.” The little kids often greet elderly strangers at the mall or the library in the same fashion: “Hello, neighbor.” I love that. It makes me think about how communities used to be smaller and more intimate places where you lived your whole life and knew everyone by sight or reputation.

Seamus doesn’t talk yet, but I can imagine him greeting people — strangers and friends, old and young, Jesuit and atheist — with a hearty, “Hello, neighbor.”

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