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Care centers provide link between the generations

Callum reacts with enthusiasm as teacher Katy Easter conducts an experiment to show the children in the class how temperature changes water in the child care center at Elim Care Center of Fargo. FORUM NEWS SERVICE/Dave Wallis1 / 2
Lydia pokes her finger finger into several cups of water and ice as part of an experiment into how temperature changes water into ice. FORUM NEWS SERVICE/Dave Wallis2 / 2

Sherri Richards | Forum News Service

Harvey Langeliers is called “Grandpa Harvey” by many. Not just his 11 grandchildren and two great-grandkids, but by the children who spend their days at Villa Maria, the long-term care facility where 94-year-old Langeliers has lived for three years.

Inside the 140-bed facility on south University Drive is a group day care, licensed for up to 12 children of Villa Maria employees.

Langeliers loves to visit the little ones. Every holiday, with help from his daughter, he makes up gift bags for the day care kids.

“I like to see that smile,” he says. The children lift his spirits, he says. He waves at them through the hall window, and occasionally gives them a ride on his wheelchair.

“It makes it feel a little more like home,” Langeliers says.

A few blocks south is Elim Care, which houses assisted living, a rehab and care center and a child care center.

The toddlers and preschoolers spend scheduled time with the residents each day, perhaps singing or listening to Bible stories. Teachers lead their charges on walks through the center. A resident’s room is right next to one of Elim Children’s Center’s three classrooms.

Intergenerational child care settings like these provide fun and learning opportunities for both the young and old, says Linda Lembke, director of ChildCare Aware in Eastern North Dakota.

“The types of programs are compatible in that they provide meals, they’re of a caring nature, and they interact with families,” Lembke says.

It’s more than sharing food services, maintenance workers or administrative staff, though. It’s about interaction and relationship.

More like home

Spending time with the children gives the senior residents a sense of purpose, says Michele Gehrig, director of Villa Maria’s child care center.

Case managers will sometimes bring in residents who are having a bad day, Gehrig says.

“It’s not institutional, it’s more home-like,” she says.

Laura Lempe, director of Elim Children’s Center, says its 30-some children are part of the residents’ daily lives, not just paraded around on occasion for entertainment.

Elim added the child care center in 1997 as it adopted the Eden Alternative philosophy, which includes companionship and meaningful care for living things, Lempe says. (Elim is also home to pet birds, hamsters, cats, a chinchilla and a dog.)

“This is a home. It’s not just where they come to learn and develop friendships. It’s family,” Lempe says.

Intergenerational programming has played an increasingly prominent role in North America since the 1970s and ’80s, according to the scholarly publication, “Intergenerational Programs: Understanding What We Have Created.”

It cited the model’s use in literacy development, prevention of drug abuse and adolescent pregnancy, educational reform and long-term care.

Learning empathy

Besides bringing joy to the residents, the children learn empathy and understanding of people with disabilities, Lempe says. They’re not afraid to go up to someone in a wheelchair.

Vickie Ness, director of resident services for Villa Maria, says her two kids “grew up” at its day care center. She’s worked at the skilled nursing facility since 1986. Villa Maria’s day care center opened in 1980.

“It just gives them a whole different perspective,” Ness says of the children who attend. “They really see special needs elderly in a different way. They’re so open. They’re so accepting.”

Many former day care kids come back to volunteer or work at the center, Ness says.

And the residents become adopted grandparents, regardless of their abilities.

“A resident who is very, very confused still knows what a baby is,” Ness says. “They may not be able to say anything, but their eyes light up.”

When Villa Maria’s day care opened in 1980, it was open to the public, but transitioned to a staff-only center in the late 1990s.

The opposite happened at the Good Samaritan Center in Arthur, N.D., which opened a child care center in 1989 because of staff need, but now is open to the community. Director Christi Swanson has been with the child care center since its inception. She was working as a nurse, but only on weekends because of the lack of child care. She also operated a home day care.

The Good Samaritan Childcare Center is licensed for 38 children, infant through school-age. It’s located on the east end of the skilled and basic care center, which is home to 62 residents.

“The kids love the residents, and the residents love the kids,” Swanson says. “They all enjoy each other.”

Swanson says the children typically visit the skilled care residents. During the summer, school-age kids play bingo with the residents. They baked gingerbread men at Christmas. They’ve made play dough together.

“It’s good for the residents’ hands to be working the play dough, and the kids love to do that,” Swanson says.

A stomach flu outbreak among the elder residents halted baking plans at Thanksgiving. The center is careful to avoid spreading illness between the two populations, Swanson says.

Death is another reality in these intergenerational centers, but the three directors all say a resident’s passing isn’t a difficult topic.

Lempe says they explain it matter-of-factly. The children understand, and focus on the resident being in heaven now.

“You would think it would be very depressing, but it’s not,” Lempe says.

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