BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — Wrinkled hands reached across the table for paper and markers. Right beside them, tiny hands with sticky fingers scribbled happily across homemade cards.

Sharing tables and supplies, elderly residents of Jill's House and a gaggle of preschool children made valentines on a Monday last month.

One resident picked up a glue stick and looked at it uncertainly. Seeing her trouble, a child reached over and took it gently from her hand.

"Like this," he said, showing her how to move the glue stick across the paper, before handing it back.

It would be easy to mistake the scene for an interaction between grandparents and grandchildren. In fact, only one child and adult in the room are actually related.

The elderly adults are residents of Jill's House assisted living facility, most of whom are living with a form of memory loss, such as dementia. The children are students of the facility's intergenerational learning program.

For 30 to 45 minutes every weekday, the program brings the facility's residents and its preschoolers together for social time and learning activities. Sometimes that includes a guest speaker and music; other days, like this particular Monday, it includes a book read aloud and a craft.

It's unique to Monroe County and is a somewhat unusual approach in the U.S. But places in Europe and Asia have been using the model for decades, and the program directors at Jill's House believe it benefits both their young learners and their elderly residents.

Putting the pieces together

Life in a nursing home or elder care facility is often characterized as lonely or boring. When a person has to enter a facility because they can no longer take care of themselves, whether because of age or impairment, they can feel as if they're being taken out of society.

"It has been shown, time and time again, that the social isolation really is detrimental," said Jackie Pinkowitz, board chairwoman for the advocacy and educational group Dementia Action Alliance. "And I don't mean physical; I'm talking about psychological, emotional, social and spiritual." Studies show that loneliness can negatively affect quality of life — and even health — for any adult. For people living with Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia, whose brains need many kinds of stimulation to delay mental decline, loneliness and boredom can be particularly harmful.

To combat that, Jill's House has been structured more like a home, community relations coordinator Heather Kinderthain explained. Adding a preschool is just one more piece of the puzzle.

"It's like you've got a house full of grandparents," Kinderthain said. For the residents, "It's like having a house full of grandkids."

The preschool's play-based curriculum focuses on exposure to early literacy, early writing, numbers sense and fine motor skills. Those are the same skills elderly people with dementia need to practice in order to retain them.

"It's the 'use it or lose it' model," said Denise Saxman, program director for the Alzheimer's Association. Often, residents don't feel compelled to "use it" without a good reason. The kids give them that, whether residents are doing crafts or singing the alphabet. "The older adults feel useful. They feel like they're doing it for the kids."

While the older residents benefit from the children's energy and vibrance, the children benefit too, said preschool director Elizabeth Stelle. Young children can find elderly people frightening, particularly if they have walkers or hearing aids or other unfamiliar pieces of equipment.

That fear is virtually nonexistent for the children at Jill's House, many of whom run up to their favorite residents for hugs when they come to the common room. On the Monday of Valentine-making, one of the children borrowed a resident's wheeled walker to slide it around the floor.

"Mary uses that to help her walk," Stelle said. Mary warned the child to be careful, but let him continue to experiment.

Such interactions give the kids a better perception of the elderly, Stelle said. "They get the benefit of an intergenerational relationship, because many of them don't have that," whether because of deaths or distance from family members.

It's up to the residents how much time they spend with the children, if they want to interact with them at all, Kinderthain said. Some residents find the children overstimulating; others simply aren't interested. And that's OK, she said.

But others light up whenever the children come into the room. They might not remember the individual kids from day to day, but the children remember them, and the residents welcome their attention.

"I love it," said Betty Bays, one of the facility's residents and grandmother to Nicole Bays, who is director of operations at Jill's House. "It just adds so much to my day, and the other residents seem to appreciate it."

It's particularly special for Betty because Nicole's son — Betty's great-grandson — is in the preschool program. Hard of hearing, Betty can't always make out what the kids say in their high, quick voices, but she loves the variety they add to her day.

"Mostly I'm just here to hug and talk and get a good look at them," she said. At 90, Betty is one of the few residents at Jill's House who isn't living with memory loss, but she enjoys watching the kids interact with her peers who are. "There are school teachers here. I enjoy watching their reactions."

Building a pre-K program

Nicole Bays has worked in the elder care industry for much of her life — often with her mother, Jan Bays, who now oversees program development and education at the facility.

Nicole had the idea for an intergenerational preschool, modeled after similar institutions in Europe, at one of her previous workplaces. But it wasn't until 25 years later, when House Investments converted what had been the Jill's House residential facility for patients at the former Indiana University Proton Therapy Center to what it is today, that she put the plan in motion.

She reached out to Stelle, and the two had "an instant shared vision," Bays said. Stelle put together a proposal, and House Investments approved it in May. One of the building's cinderblock garage spaces was renovated into Jill's House Intergenerational Preschool, which opened in the fall.

They started out with four children. By November, they had eight — some of them full-time students, some of them part-time. Then, in December, Bloomington's northwest YMCA closed its child-care center. Bays' phone started ringing off the hook, and within a month, Jill's House had tripled in size.

Now, the preschool serves 30 children from ages 3 to 5. It has expanded to two rooms: a large room filled to capacity with 18 kids, and a small room that has 12 students but could hold 15. With three teachers — all licensed child-care professionals — and three assistants, there is one adult for every 10 children at all times. Stelle said the program will be ranked a Level 2 on the state's Paths to Quality rating system by the end of the month, and has plans to work for a Level 4 ranking.

Most parents have enthusiastically embraced the preschool's mission, Stelle said. A few others have worried about how children will make sense of the residents' delicate mental states.

But for the most part, the children are not aware that the residents live with memory loss, Stelle said. She hasn't told them, and so far, none of them have asked.

She's willing to address it if it comes up, along with more difficult questions — including the eventual death of a resident.

"Some families are scared of that," she said. But dying is a natural human process, she said. She thinks, and hopes, that experiencing a death at a degree removed might help the children cope when they eventually lose a family member.

It will be a difficult bridge to cross when they come to it. In the meantime, Stelle, Bays and Kinderthain rejoice over what they see as minor miracles occurring in their facility.

While interacting with the children will never cure or reverse memory loss, certain songs or nursery rhymes will jog residents' memories. Earlier this month, one resident chimed in as Stelle read the picture book "Tikki Tikki Tembo," about a boy with a long name who falls into a well. The resident had grown up in a missionary family in India, and remembered the version she learned was different for Indian readers.

"We can pull (those memories) out of them by having that interaction with kids," Stelle said. "And regardless, they remember caring for children. It just pulls that compassion out of them, that love out of them, and they want to share it."

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Source: The (Bloomington) Herald Times

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Information from: The Herald Times, http://www.heraldtimesonline.com