Preschool helps nursing facility residents stay young

For the past two years, Forbes has named Columbia one of the top 25 places in the U.S. to retire. So it’s no wonder the city is home to a growing number of retirement communities and assisted living and nursing facilities.

One of them, The Neighborhoods By TigerPlace, has developed an innovative model to help residents stay young at heart: The rehabilitation and skilled nursing facility partnered with TigerSide Intergenerational Preschool to open a day care on its campus. It welcomed its first classes of little neighbors in September 2011.

“Intergenerational Programming is a fancy way of saying that we help bring seniors and kids together to form fun and meaningful relationships. Both groups have so much to teach and learn from each other that the result of this program is always magical,” said Jackie White, executive director of The Neighborhoods by TigerPlace. “A nursing home can be a lonely and boring place. At the same time, today’s nuclear families live far apart. Grandchildren don’t always have a daily relationship with a grandparent. This program helps to address these two groups. We wanted to bring them together.”

TigerSide director and co-owner Stephanie Ross said she and her business partner, who had always wanted to go into business together, thought a preschool at a nursing facility was a “cool concept” and applied to put the program together.

TigerSide has a capacity of 24 children from ages 2 to 12. The state-licensed facility is grouped into four age-based classes and includes before- and after-school care. In addition to learning traditional preschool curriculum, the Cubs (ages 2 to 3), Jelly Beans (ages 3 to 4) and pre-kindergarteners (ages 4 to 6) interact with their senior “neighbors” at least once a week. They color together, do arts and crafts, play games and read stories. During regular room visits, the children go through the facility knocking on doors, saying hello and passing out artwork.

There are also special events such as Lemonade Promenades and Teddy Bear Picnics. At Halloween, students go trick-or-treating through the halls so the residents can see their costumes and pass out candy.

One of the relationship’s primary benefits for young people is that it teaches them to be compassionate and to interact with people who might look different from them, Ross said.

“That’s one thing that happens naturally here. We deal with people on a daily basis who have abrasions on their face or have an oxygen tank or are in a wheelchair,” Ross said. “Our school has a very hands-on way of teaching kids to be gentle and how people are different. We love and accept them just the same.”

One example stands out vividly. Ross recalls a former TigerSide student who didn’t like being near another student with Down syndrome because it made her uncomfortable.

“By the last day, they were running down the sidewalk holding hands,” she said.

Tracy Keel works in admissions for The Neighborhoods and sent her kids to TigerSide when they were younger. Their grandfathers had died earlier, Keel explained, so they developed a special connection with the male residents.

“They still talk about the men they met there,” Keel said. “I have a picture of my son Jason with one of the residents.”

The benefits for the senior residents are just as obvious. “It’s great for the neighbors. They get to see that young spirit, that energy,” Keel said. “They can be having a blasé day, but as soon as the kids come, they’re smiling and laughing. When the kids leave, they’re still smiling. They love that some of our rooms look like a playground”

Retired high school science teacher Dorothy Sullivan is a resident of The Neighbors. She likes the regular visits from the preschool because they give her the opportunity to be around children again.

“I love kids. My whole life was dedicated to kids,” Sullivan said. “I think they come to learn from us, but you can learn from children.”

Fellow resident Mary Wood enjoys coloring with the children when they visit.

“They’re darling. We love them,” Wood said. “The children are so excited about coming in, and that’s what’s so nice. Mainly, they’re just fun to be with. They’re not putting on airs. They’re just having a good time.”

White said the children provide “meaningful engagement and purpose in the senior’s lives.”

“We call it ‘the presence of joy,’” she said. “We are always striving for ways to make the traditional nursing home less clinical and more like home. An intergenerational program is one step toward this goal.”