Better Together

Nurturing intergenerational relationships offers benefits for both young children and older adults.

Every Wednesday afternoon just before 3 pm, Betty McKay leaves her apartment at Miralea Active Lifestyle Community, arms loaded down with a Mary Poppins style bag filled with children’s books and hand puppets. She stops by the first-floor restaurant, Juleps, to pick up a box of pre-ordered apple slices, and takes the Miralea transportation shuttle the short drive to Sproutlings Pediatric Day Care & Preschool.

Once inside, Betty makes her way to the Raccoon’s classroom, where a group of eager 4- and 5-year-olds await her arrival. They dig into the apple slices, then settle in to find out what Betty has in store for them that day. It could be a new children’s book from the library. Or perhaps she’ll bring out the hand puppets and teach the children simple Spanish phrases. She might tell them stories from her own youth, or from her years teaching school.

Betty is one of a few residents that volunteers her time at Sproutlings, providing an important opportunity for older adults and young children to interact. And these interactions have a significant positive effect on both the children and the residents.

“They love when she visits, and always look forward to the stories she reads,” said Elise Petrone, lead teacher of the Raccoon’s classroom at Sproutlings. “They are fascinated by her stories, and it allows for the children to learn about times gone by and history from someone who witnessed things the children will only ever read about.”

Betty began volunteering as a way to get involved in her new community, and to reconnect with the youth she had spent a lifetime teaching. The Louisville resident moved into Miralea in 2013 after realizing that it was no longer safe for her to live alone in her three-story home, especially since she doesn’t have any family nearby. While she made friends with her new neighbors and enjoyed all of the activities available to her on the Louisville Campus, she found she craved interaction with children again. “I thought I would go over to Sproutlings and see if they would have me,” she said. “I felt that this is a way I could give back to my community, which is so important.”

Armed with a list of children’s books provided by fellow Miralea resident and former librarian Jane Smith, Betty began guiding the children through classic storybooks including “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” and “Hansel and Gretel.” Though Betty said she was initially a bit anxious about how the children would react to her, she said that she felt an immediate lift following her first volunteer session, and couldn’t wait to go back.

“It made me feel more confident, more grateful,” said Betty. “Excited to do what I can, for as long as I can.”

Betty’s experience mirrors what many studies have shown: Spending time with younger generations, particularly in a volunteer capacity, can have profound, positive effects on older adults. Many seniors report a renewed sense of purpose after volunteering and experience less loneliness. One study from Generation United, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of children, youth and older adults through intergenerational collaboration, public policies and programs, found that older adults who volunteer regularly with children burned 20 percent more calories per week, experienced fewer falls, and even performed better on memory tests than their peers.

“So many seniors struggle with loneliness and isolation. Even here at Masonic, many of their connections are newer friends, and adults usually have to work into close relationships,” said Elise. “With the children, the connection is immediate and very real. Our interactions are full of laughter, and many, many questions.”

Volunteer hours are not the only times the children at Sproutlings interact with residents. Amber Zambrano, director of education and operations at Sproutlings said the children go on walks around campus and visit with residents, do craft activities at Grove Pointe Assisted Living, and go Trick-or-Treating on campus at Halloween.

“The intergenerational activities we participate in are highlights for both the kids and the residents,” said Amber. “It makes everybody’s day.”

At a recent craft activity involving Sproutlings children and Grove Pointe residents, Amber said that the children helped the residents with their crafts nearly as much as the residents helped the children.

“It was a bit of a role reversal,” saidAmber. “It was really neat to see.” Betty does more than read books during her volunteer sessions: she creates magic. New books are wrapped up like presents for the children to discover. Old books are sometimes cut up and mounted on popsicle sticks for the children to use while retelling the story back to one another. Betty, who double majored in English and Spanish at University of Louisville, also teaches the children Spanish phrases, using hand puppets to help the children practice the words. In the process, she also coaches them on manners, and how to speak confidently in front of the group.

“It’s a big responsibility to teach a child,” said Betty. “But I think it keeps you on your toes.”

Sproutlings in particular offers a unique opportunity for older adults and children to find common ground. The center integrates both typical and medically fragile children in the same classroom.

The goal is to nurture compassionate interactions among children of all abilities. Betty said she was initially anxious about how the children would react to her walker, but quickly realized they barely noticed it, and naturally gave her space to navigate the classrooms with it. In addition, witnessing the children interact with one another has given Betty a fresh perspective on how she approaches life’s unique challenges.

“Watching the way the children accept each other has done something good for me. It’s made me more accepting of the way life is,” she said. “You can learn so much from other people, no matter how old you are.”

Shortly after she began volunteering at Sproutlings, the children made Betty a thank you gift, which hangs proudly in her Miralea apartment.

In addition to her volunteer sessions, Betty also takes part in the Sproutlings graduation ceremony each Spring.