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Uniting children and the elderly: Intergenerational centers create magic one interaction at a time

Children and seniors share spaces and activities at the Bethlehem Intergenerational Center.

Though it is not typical to see both the elderly and infants engaging with one another, intergenerational programs have found a way to bring them together and add value for both sides. Three local programs and a participant share their insights on the value of these programs and the positive impact they can have.
Mike Liebert is a stroke patient suffering from dementia and brain damage. He has been attending the Bethlehem Intergenerational Center five afternoons a week for about a year and a half now. His condition has not lessened his enjoyment or involvement with the program. The impact the Center has had on him so far is unbelievable, says his wife Carol Liebert.
 
“It has made such a difference in him. He’s verbal when he’s there where he’s not so much here at home. He’s playing Cribbage. He’s playing Rummy. We didn’t even know if he could count cards. He has thrived,” she adds.
 
Known to the participants as the BIC, the Bethlehem Intergenerational Center is housed in the Bethlehem Church on Commerce Ave. in Grand Rapids. The BIC was initially proposed as an adult day center. During their preliminary research, Pastor Jay Schrimpf, who also serves as the Center’s executive director, and Center director Sue Davidson came across the concept of intergenerational centers — caring for the very young and elders in the same program. 
 
“Intergenerational programming provides opportunities for the younger and older generations to interact and engage with each other in meaningful and purpose-driven activities. In the process, talents and resources are shared,” says Jessica Scheuerman, marketing and communications manager at Porter Hills, a provider of various levels of support to seniors throughout West Michigan, which also facilitates an intergenerational program. 
 
After conducting hands-on exploration of other centers throughout the country, Davidson and Schrimpf were ready to propose the development of their own unified program. Opened a year and a half ago, the BIC serves children ages newborn through age 12 and seniors. Throughout the day, there is a free flow of participants between their children’s and adult’s wings. Joint programming includes activities such as art projects, music classes, seasonally-themed projects, and puzzles.
 
Sue Davidson“The planned activities and the structured activities are great. The magic really happens during those organic times where we have activities available but [participants] get to choose what they want to do. That is when those real relationships are built,” says Davidson. “We’re there to support that. It leads to those comfortable conversations and it’s really incredible to watch.”
 
Community intergenerational programs
 
The BIC is not the only place creating these magical moments. Through their Porter Hills Village community, a continuing care center, Porter Hills collaborates with the Mary Free Bed YMCA Generations Child Development Center (Generations) to offer their intergenerational program.
 
Launched in 1992, Generations stemmed from Porter Hill’s desire to provide additional engagement opportunities for its residents and within the community at large. Housed in the Porter Hills Village building, Generations is very interactive. Through routine activities such as walking and swimming as well as annual seasonal events, participants are actively encouraged to engage with one another on a regular basis. “It’s really quite magical,” says community engagement manager Maegan Garlock.
 
Garlock is in a position to see the value of this program from multiple perspectives. “My son goes there,” she shares. “In my working world, I can [also] see the benefit. The kids walking down the hall have an immediate effect on the residents living here. [And] it helps the kids have empathy towards older people and have more tolerance for people with differences from them.”
 
NorthPointe Intergenerational Preschool, through NorthPointe Christian Schools, began exploring the integration of an intergenerational component with its four-year-old preschool program about a year and a half ago. In the fall of 2016, they began by having preschoolers visit their new “Grand Friends” at Boulder Creek Assisted Living center. Based on the positive feedback, they decided to expand the program. Now in collaboration with Vista Springs Riverside Gardens, the intergenerational preschool opened in the fall of 2017.
 
Kate Hilts serves as the admissions coordinator at the elementary and preschool, as well as the liaison for the intergenerational preschool. With a background in geriatric nursing, Hilts was an advocate for this program. Now in its second year, the program has already seen substantial growth. “This school year, enrollment has more than doubled. Parents love it. It has been really positive,” says Hilts.
 
Meeting participants where they are
 
With a focus on continuing to find creative opportunities for engagement between the youth and senior participants, Garlock says their goal is to “continue to bring vibrance to both worlds.”
 
“Our goal was and is to provide a safe, quality program where real relationships are built. It’s about true engagement and giving our elders a sense of purpose,” says Davidson.
 
Long-term, Hilts says they would like to expand their programming to other centers and facilities. “It’s just a matter of time, people, and funds to make that happen,” she says.
 
Though there is a faith-based component to their mission, the BIC’s services are not limited to members of their church or faith. “We accept children and adults of any religion or no religion. It is not just congregation members,” says Schrimpf. Approximately four of the 50 current children are members. Their current elder program is comprised of only one member: Mike. 
 
“Our philosophy is each participant, whether a child or an adult, is an individual and that’s how they should be treated. Everybody has an individual care plan,” says Davidson.
 
Providing exposure and education to create empathy
 
These programs are adding both short- and long-term value for participants. “The empathy that emits from [the children]. The fact that they are not at all surprised or in fear of someone that may be on oxygen or in a wheelchair, plus the history that [the children] get [is great],” Davidson says.
 
“With the Grand Friends, socially, it’s awesome for them. We’ve noticed with students that are a little more shy or might have some anxiety, there’s just a level of comfort. The whole reason the Grand Friends are there is that they want to interact with the children. I think the kids just sense that,” says Hilts.
 
The intergenerational structure was appealing to Carol and stood out compared to traditional options. Prior to selecting the BIC, Carol also visited an adult day care center. “I scheduled a tour and I went. I left feeling like there was no joy in the place. People [were] just sitting around, TVs going, nobody talked. I left and I thought, I just can’t do that to him. [The BIC] has been the answer for us. We are thrilled with it,” she says.
 
“The kids area is something I thought would be perfect for Mike. There is nothing like having those doors open and you hear a little four-year-old [say], ‘Hi, Mike! Are you going to eat lunch with me?” Carol shares. “I wish everyone could come and see what happens. It’s a remarkable place.”
 
“These kids are the best medicine there is,” she adds.
 
Highlighting the importance of self-care
 
As executive director, Schrimpf takes a 30,000-foot view approach and seeks to help inform people about their program and its value. He says one of their goals “is to help caregivers understand that it’s important for [them] to have care, to care for themselves and this is one of the ways that they can do that.”
 
Jay SchrimpfIn addition to Mike’s conditions, Carol has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. For her, the BIC has provided just what Schrimpf hoped – an opportunity to recharge and take time for self-care. After serving as Mike’s caregiver for 15 years, this time is essential. 
 
“Caregiving is a 24/7 job and it’s exhausting,” says Carol. “Everybody needs a respite. For us, it’s five hours, five days a week. It is so sorely needed. Caregivers don’t understand that they burn out. [The BIC] is something that can be beneficial for both sides — the patient and the caregiver.”
 
“The thought is that good adult care for aging in place can put off the need to go into a residential care facility for anywhere from one to three years. That’s a big deal for our community. There’s a huge expense involved once you reach residential care. As goals, we want to continue learning to do what we do better each day,” says Schrimpf. “It creates beautiful and magical relationships between young and old.”

About Leandra Nisbet: Leandra Nisbet is the Program Editor for the “Making It In Grand Rapids” series. She is Owner of Stingray Advisory Group LLC and Co-Owner of Gold Leaf Designs LLC and Brightwork Marine LLC. Leandra has over 14 years of experience in leadership, sales & marketing and graphic design. Through her work, she assists businesses with creating strategies for growth and sustainability through: strategic planning, marketing concept development/implementation, risk management solutions and financial organization. She is actively involved in the community, sitting on several Boards and committees.

Contact Leandra Nisbet by email at leandra.rapidgrowth@gmail.com!

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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