Pairing of young and old

Exchange: Sykesville retirement center brings young and old together.

April 10, 2002|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Every Tuesday, Margaret Korter maneuvers her walker to a spot in the sunlit community room at Sykesville Fairhaven Retirement Center, joining a dozen other elderly residents - most of them in wheelchairs - for "playtime."

This is not ceramics, bingo or any other activity typically associated with a retirement home. Playtime turns out to be just that - an informal hour where the elderly chat, sing, laugh and join in games with toddlers.

"They remind me of all the first-graders I had all those years," said Korter, 97, a former teacher in Baltimore City schools. "These kids are so cute that I love watching them. I'm so glad [they're] here."

Fairhaven's weekly effort to connect the old and the young is part of a national trend among "forward-thinking homes for the elderly," said Deborah Cloud, vice president of communications for the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging, an advocate for the elderly.

"These programs are wonderful for everybody concerned," Cloud said. "It is therapeutic and life-enriching for residents and helps to continue aspects of home life. The children look beyond wheelchairs and shaky hands and learn not to be afraid of older people."

This pairing of old and very young awakens memories of children and grandchildren, eliminates age barriers and enlivens the long hours spent in the company of aging and often frail peers, proponents say.

"The most important thing for the elders is that they get to live a life worth living, and making children available to them is a great part of that," said William H. Thomas, a New York physician and founder of Eden Alternative, an innovative approach to caring for the elderly. "If you take away the children, you might as well take away food and water."

Thomas is intent on improving the lives of the nation's elderly, especially those 1.7 million Americans living in nursing homes. Eden Alternative, based in New York, has a public school kindergarten located in one nursing home, which allows residents and children to take art and gym classes together. Other homes have summer camps, nurseries and day care centers on site. On rainy days, children ride tricycles down the halls of the nursing home and no one is bothered by the noise, Thomas said.

"Children and elders get along in a magical way probably because elders understand the ways children interact in their own world," Thomas said. "The connection is absolutely vital. Elders have the wisdom of a full life led, and they are ideally prepared to love and embrace children."

The Carroll County Public Library sponsors the Fairhaven program, led by library associate Debby Halscheid-Parker.

"It is so rewarding working on both ends of the generations. It amazes me how the residents' faces light up when they see the babies," said Halscheid-Parker. "Some go from no expression to the nicest smile."

Like Korter. She greeted an elderly friend who was tossing a ball to a toddler. She took a seat and soon added her voice to "You Are My Sunshine," a tune familiar enough for a sing-along with these generations far removed from each other.

Children wandered about the room - never far from a parent's gaze -playing as they would in their own homes. Samantha Grasso's unexpected tumble to the carpet elicited an "Oh, dear" of alarm from 90-year-old Virginia Peters. The 15-month-old picked herself up quickly and blew Peters a kiss.

Initially, the residents were the audience, but the children soon pulled them into the activities. One child walked along a row of residents in wheelchairs and gently shook hands. Smiling babies went from their mothers' arms to those of the residents. Donald Watchorn, 87, got a game of catch going with 21-month-old Sam Rea.

"Sam didn't get out of his mom's lap the first few sessions," said Halscheid-Parker, who has been leading the program for about six months. "Now he has really emerged."

For Geni Scalio, whose parents live in California, the visits are an opportunity to connect her 6-month-old son Wyatt to another generation.

"I want him to be in touch with older people," she said.

Stephen Vozzella, Fairhaven's director of activities and volunteer services, said the visits remind residents of their children and grandchildren.

"It has reminiscence value, especially for people with memory impairment," said Vozzella. "Often they can remember from a long time ago, when they were raising their kids. Hopefully, those are positive memories.

Nationally, about 60 percent of nursing home residents suffer from some form of dementia, Vozzella said.

"A lot of these residents are severely impaired," said Vozzella. "A smile, a laugh or a wave can be a major accomplishment for them."

Thomas said, "Memory impairment damages the ability to do but not the ability to be. The spark of humanity remains long after someone forgets how to tie his shoes and children can bring out that spark."

Programs that cross generations and encourage reminiscing give the elderly and children an understanding of themselves, said Dr. Scott A. Bass, a gerontologist and dean of the graduate school at University of Maryland Baltimore County.

"We need programs like this to foster interaction," Bass said. "It shows children the elderly are much like themselves. Their bodies change but they are human beings with ideas, experience and goals. The program can debunk fears of aging and provide children a chance to understand the continuity of life. It is a real opportunity for exchange across generations."

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