Preschool within retirement home in Seattle allows for inter-generational play

Finger painting fun at the Intergenerational Leaning Center, Seattle, Washington.
Finger painting fun at the Intergenerational Leaning Center, Seattle, Washington. Photo: Evan Briggs

Nowhere is the life and death dichotomy more starkly and beautifully manifest than in Providence Mount St. Vincent in Seattle, Washington, where a preschool embedded within a retirement home allows tiny tots to play with their significantly older cohabitants. 

The Intergenerational Learning Center curriculum provides daily conjoint activities like music, dancing, art, lunch, and storytelling. Sometimes, just visiting is the order of the hour.

For the little ones, the opportunity to learn about and appreciate the wisdom of their elders is invaluable, especially in our increasingly individualistic society. The cross-generational play also teaches them tolerance of those with disabilities and reduces their fear of older people.

'Stack hands' in action.
'Stack hands' in action. Photo: Evan Briggs

For the elderly, experiencing unconditional love and attention is bringing youthful light to their often alienated lives.

Evan Briggs, an adjunct professor at Seattle University and freelance director, was so taken by the concept she decided to make a documentary about it. She explains her motivation: "In our fast-paced, youth-obsessed culture, we don't want to be reminded of our own mortality. It's easier to look away".

The film opens with a Zulu proverb, 'A person is a person because of people', underscoring our fundamental need for human connection.

In one scene from the film, a young girl and an elderly woman are seen spontaneously stacking their hands together, their mutual delight evident in their expressions. In another, residents and infants stand in a haphazard circle playing 'Parachute', their smiles as broad as the nylon circle's circumference.

Ms Briggs recounts one particularly poignant instance she observed. A rousing toddler and senior rendition of 'You Are My Sunshine' prompted one elderly resident to share his memory of singing that same tune with his platoon during World War Two. This "circle of life" moment, as described by the author, was profound and would ordinarily be overlooked, or would not even have occurred had the sing-along not been arranged. It brought the important notion of mortality into play as well as highlighting the oft-forgotten fact that the elderly are repositories of knowledge and wisdom.

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She used US-based research to justify her endeavour: 43% of older adults experience social isolation, which is closely correlated with loneliness and depression as well as mental and physical decline. The need to address this alarming statistic is critical; the number of adults aged 65 years and older is expected to double within the next 25 years.

These numbers can be extrapolated to the Australian context, where we too seem to be failing our elders. According to Professor Andrew Beer of the School of Social Sciences at the University of Adelaide, 20% of older Australians are affected by social isolation. Our upcoming 'grey army', baby boomers, are more likely to be affected by social isolation than preceding generations due to lower marriage levels, higher rates of divorce, less stable employment and a propensity for self-dependence.

As a side note, Ms Briggs also wished to explore the popular philosophical notion of mindfulness. "With neither past nor future in common, the relationships between the children and the residents exist entirely in the present". Her views on this are encapsulated by the film's title, Present Perfect.

The Intergenerational Learning Center's premise is supported by research.
The Intergenerational Learning Center's premise is supported by research. Photo: Evan Briggs

A Kickstarter campaign, raising money to finish the editing of the film, has raised $37,766 but needs at least $50,000 by 3 July 2015 to be funded.

Looking locally, there is nothing quite like the Intergenerational Learning Centre. But the Montefiore Home, an aged-care facility in Sydney's Randwick, located next door to Moriah Pre-School, comes close. Its staff organise frequent preschooler/geriatric activities, to the amused pleasure of all. 

91-year-old Rosaline Goldstuck, a Montefiore Home resident, says of her burgeoning acquaintance with a three-year-old, "we just became friends", revealing the judgement-free attitudes of the very young and very old alike. "I came down to her level. I didn't have to go far" she wryly adds. "I enjoyed it immensely". 

Click here to donate to Evan Briggs' Kickstarter campaign.

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