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Study: Assisted Living Residents Welcome Local Students

 

What happens when residents of an assisted living facility and adolescents from the local school mix for crafts, exercise, spelling bees and sing-a-longs? Friendships blossom and age barriers fall away, says a new study.

The brainchild of an elementary school teacher, the Meadows School Project was launched in rural British Columbia in 2000. A Grade 6 teacher obtained permission to relocate her class to a nearby assisted living residence (Coldstream Meadows) for five weeks in October and November and three weeks in May. From Monday to Thursday, students took the short bus ride from the school to facility and back again at the end of the day.

Arlene Carson and colleagues from the University of Victoria (Victoria, B.C.) reported their findings online in the Journal of Intergenerational Relationships (December 12, 2011).

Learning about growing old

The Coldstream Meadows facility is ideally suited to an intergenerational program with spacious grounds and ample space for students to play during recess. An unused chapel near the residents’ lodge served as the students’ classroom.

The founding teacher organized the project in close collaboration with the facility owners and staff and the students and parents. As the program progressed, motivated residents helped to plan and lead some activities. Students volunteered to set lunch tables and serve tea to residents

As a component of the curriculum, the students learned:

  • about the aging process;
  • strategies for communicating with persons with hearing and speech impairments;
  • common chronic conditions; and
  • how to interact respectfully in social situations.

On-site activities

Twice daily, the residents and students worked in pairs or as part of a group at the facility.

Activities included:

  • armchair fitness classes;
  • seasonal craft projects (such as Halloween pumpkin carving);
  • science fairs;
  • spelling bees;
  • sing-a-longs; and
  • celebrations.

Connecting generations

The study found the program nurtured social bonds among participants through a variety of activities.

Here are some examples:

Physical activity: Residents and students engaged in fine and gross motor movements, including:

  • armchair fitness classes led by the recreation coordinator; and
  • walks around the grounds by one or two students paired with a resident.

Project experiences: One student described his favourite experiences: "The things that I enjoyed most were painting the pumpkins, sharing our science experiments with the residents, joining [residents] for tea, sharing our collections and just visiting."

Physical contact: Students provided residents with regular hand massages.

Door knocking: Students knocked on residents’ doors to invite them to participate in activities. "She [the resident] was so excited that we remembered to come and get her for an activity that she hugged me and thanked me for remembering her," one student said.

Mentorship: Both groups helped to mentor each other. "The kids have helped me a lot, just by giving me the gumption to bring my crochet work out and show it," one woman said. "And I know I was laughing and giggling and having a good old time."

The students helped dispel stereotypes about the younger generation. "I think that they [the residents] really enjoyed our company," one student explained. "And I think it totally made them realize that we’re not bad. We’re just kids."

Equal partners: Finally, the parents remarked on the egalitarian nature of the relationships forged between old and young: "They think that they [students and residents] just connected as people. I don’t think either party was condescending to the other," said the mother of one student. "And that was really awesome because people tend to be condescending to kids and seniors . . . and they were able to break through that."

Boost for residents

The project resulted in many positive outcomes for older adults.

As the former recreations activities director put it: "The residents are out of their rooms more. They have more energy. They’re more animated and talking. You don’t see so much sort of aimless wandering. There’s more purpose to where they’re going."

A current resident when asked whether the project had health benefits for her replied, "It did me a wonder, a wonder of good."

And finally, the daughter of a former resident said: "I think it helped her self-esteem. Because the children enjoyed hearing her stories and she enjoyed telling them."

Upside for students

The program also fostered understanding and friendship among the students and residents.

"I think the most surprising thing I learned is how much they love children, they love us so much," one student said. "I was really surprised to see how much fun they had with us."

"It was fun getting to know what it was like when they [residents] were younger . . . how they lived," another student noted.

"I learned that they [residents] can still learn a lot of stuff even though they are old," another remarked.

Asked what surprised him most about the project, one boy said, "The most surprising thing was about by buddy . . . she flew planes!"

Program wins hearts

The innovative project strengthened bonds between the old and young, promoting zest and community well-being. More broadly, researchers say the project offers a template for how a burgeoning older population can contribute to intergenerational partnerships and be valued for who they are.