Alternative Grandparenting

ONE program matches seniors with children in model program

LA Family/2004

Jenna and Doci are playmates at the ONE daycare center in Van Nuys. On a hot day in August, the two play with blocks in the cool climes of the toddler room, each oblivious to the world around them as they focus on their game.

Jenna is 18 months old, Doci is 75, and together they are making daycare history. Part of a precedent-setting model program created about nine years ago, Jenna and Doci are proving that intergenerational programs do more for the participants than was ever imagined.

It only takes one visit to ONE to understand what’s going on and appreciate the benefits compared to traditional daycare. The seniors in the program are mostly older, frailer individuals suffering from stroke, Alzheimer’s, dementia and other physical and emotional disabilities. But they’re not bed-ridden or ready for a nursing home, and ONE offers them a wide variety of support and activities to make them feel more vital, help them live fuller lives and escape from the isolation that can occur from being house-bound or institutionalized.

“We’re always partying here,” laughs Jennifer Tiller, director of adult daycare, as she walks into a room full of seniors decked out in jeans and straw hats for Western day. It’s about 10 a.m., and some of them are lining up for the short walk across the courtyard to the children’s daycare. Every day, seniors have the choice to interact with the kids through seven different structured activity times. There are also unstructured times, such as when seniors—whom the kids refer to as “neighbors”—sit on the patio just to hear the sound of the play going on next door. Kids and seniors alike all have the ability to choose which activities to participate in, as well as to opt out if they wish.

Watching a pair like Jenna and Doci or Kyle and Eunice across the table from them, it’s easy to see how both benefit from the contact. The women are given a sense of purpose and usefulness too often missing in traditional daycare, and the children have adult playmates with no agenda other than to be with them having fun. As any parent knows, young children’s appetite for complete, undivided attention is insatiable, and at ONE, that kind of attention is delivered in spades from loving seniors. It’s impossible to watch this interaction and not intuit something special, something wonderful is happening.

Societal Shift

American society has changed a great deal in the past century. Families don’t often remain in the same town as the grandparents, or seniors move away to live in other communities. Children growing up without grandparents around usually have little or no interaction with elders, which can make them wary or even scared of older people, especially those using wheelchairs or walkers.

ONE executive director Donna Deutchman says the intergenerational program grew out of the need for seniors programs that were life-enriching. Next door to the senior daycare center was a YMCA childcare, and the union between the two seemed inevitable when initial interaction between the two populations showed promise.

“We learned we needed to make it one program with one staff,” Deutchman says. “We developed an outcome-based model on how they would interact.”

Other forays into intergenerational programs, she says, were limited to occasional visits from children at senior centers—like a Brownie troop that comes by once a month. At ONE, the desire was for something more comprehensive, and the positive results of that sustained contact are now documented in a study recently submitted for publication.

“It’s all been anecdotal up to this point,” says Kelly Bruno, director of the intergenerational program. “What we’re seeing in the study is real improvement among seniors who have this contact with kids. And they benefit no matter what their level of impairment.”

For the children, Bruno says, one of the biggest benefits is learning empathy.

“That’s huge,” she says. “And they learn to embrace differences.”

The seniors at ONE do not act as replacements for the regular teachers. The teachers as well as the adult caregivers supervise all intergenerational activities. If anything, they say, it’s a tougher job because of the planning and coordination that has to take place to make the experiences worthwhile. It’s not enough that the two generations are just spending time together, Bruno explains, they want them to get something out of it they wouldn’t otherwise.

“For the seniors, one of the goals is leaving a legacy, and they need to be needed,” she says. “For the children, they get a healthy outlook on aging.”

Since ONE is a non-profit, they are able to offer competitive rates compared to other daycares. On the senior side, they have some scholarship money available and also work with insurance carriers to offset the cost for families. Rates start at about $58 per day—far less than a nursing home.

For the children, the rate is between $880 a month for the youngest to $595 for the pre-k group. As children’s daycare director Judy Hamilton points out, those rates are the lowest in the Valley for a fully accredited childcare facility. Be forewarned, though: There’s a two-year waiting list for the infant room and a six-month wait for older kids.

Outside the ONE facility, the sight of seniors with canes and walkers getting out on one side of the parking lot with children being plucked from car seats on the other doesn’t seem so unusual after a tour. In fact, it seems to make perfect sense that there’s a place for the youngest and oldest members of society to interact. The program is so compelling that interest in what ONE is doing is spreading around the country, with the Van Nuys example serving as a model for other centers looking to “go intergenerational.”

ONE staffers like Bruno seem never to quite get over the atmosphere they’ve helped create. In the toddler room, Bruno gasps when she hears a speech-impaired senior suddenly articulating clearly game piece colors to a toddler she’s sitting with.

“Blue! Green! Yellow!” Linda says, apparently not even conscious of her breakthrough.

“That’s amazing,” Bruno says. “If you tried to talk with her, you couldn’t understand her.”

Those little miracles are all in a day’s work at ONE.

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