A preschool inside a West Seattle, Wash., nursing home brings together the old and young, teaching both.
The facility, built in 1924, is now more home than hospital. It moved away from a “medical model” and toward a “social” one.
In 1991, the first classroom was established at the nursing home. It hosted 12 children. Now, in 2017, there are six classrooms, 125 children and a two-year wait list.
Even the intergenerational learning center’s founding was a shift to focus on family inclusion: a group of employees asked for on-site child care.
At the time, the home was “lonely, isolated … a little depressing,” Susan Clark, public relations manager with Providence Mount St. Vincent, said.
We wove through the yellow-lit hallways of the home. Packs of children played in groups, swinging feet over recently-frozen wood chips in the yard, stacking colored toys and sweeping them back down, eating orange foods with their fingers, messily, happily.
The children have scheduled visits to various areas of the nursing home, to sing and drum with the elderly, play memory games and swap stories of their favorite toys.
One nursing home resident recalled that his favorite toys were all made by his mother back when he was a boy.
A little girl held a kaleidoscope up to the eye of an elderly woman who couldn’t hold it herself. The girl twisted the toy, making fragments of colors spin and appear.
The nursing home doesn’t just have child care. The model for the home meant changing a lot about the way it was run.
Now the home hosts a sewing shop to have work done on clothes coming undone, a thrift store, a barber, a beauty salon, mass services, massages and more.
A “dry-land cruise ship,” Charlene Boyd, administrator at Providence Mount St. Vincent, called it. Boyd has been with the home for over 30 years and saw the development of the preschool.
Her two sons, when they were little boys, attended the school.
She recalls the transitional period as one with hills.
“When you talk about changing people’s jobs,” Boyd said. “It’s sort of uncomfortable.”
But the change was necessary, she said, and “worth it.”
They were developing “a place you come to live and not to die.”
Children learn from seniors, seniors learn from children
The kids range from 6 weeks old to 6 years old at the ILC.
Director Marie Hoover was asked if the visits are prefaced with information about old people or their tools, like their wheelchairs.
“Part of the beauty of this program is that [children] just accept you for who you are, and it’s just part of what makes you you,” Hoover said.
The children come out of the program with an acceptance of older people as a natural part of their own world: an impact they take with them to the public and into the rest of their lives, including into interactions with their own older or ailing family members.
The senior residents gain as much as the children.
“I think it taps into their memory,” Hoover said. “We have lots of experiences where we have residents who, when you try to speak to them, it’s really hard to understand them. Their words are not, sort of, falling in a typical way. And then the kids show up, or they’re brought into the baby room — and they’re suddenly speaking in full sentences.”
Another perk is the benefit of touch.
What makes this nursing home special
Living plants are abundant throughout the home. Residents can bring whatever pleases them.
Most pets are welcome, too. There are several cats at the home, a small dog and once there were finches.
A vet comes and does wellness rounds for the animals.
One cat, Vincent, was called “mischievous.” Vincent lives on the third floor, where invisible wire had to be installed. The cat had been riding the elevator down to the first floor.
Around the home are fish tanks with fluorescent white coral, steaming espresso brewing, and hanging art: a mix of classical flower paintings and hand-drawn children’s artwork, rainbow spiders and crawling ivy.
“This building is unique and special … in terms of resident-direct care, you’ve got residents who live here who are not forced to get up at a certain time, or dress at a certain time, eat a certain thing. … It’s the sharing of life, and just the normal things that we all sometimes take for granted about our lives,” Hoover said. “The kids coming and visiting is just one aspect of integrating family together.”
Toddler boy forms bond with senior man, helps him move paralyzed arm
“One of my favorite stories,” Hoover recalled. “Was a little boy who was a young toddler, under two, and he was brought up with a small group and there was a relatively new resident, who apparently had no use of his right arm.”
“And this man’s wife was sitting there and talking to the teacher about that very thing. And this little boy just started to climb up into this man’s lap — and that arm came right up and secured him in place.
“And we just thought it was a fluke — I mean, it kind of surprised all of us. But every single time that same child was brought up and crawled into this man’s lap, that man’s arm came up — and it was the only time.”
Hoover said many people come to the intergenerational learning center for data and they don’t have it; they have anecdotes like these, stories that lift.
The staff is motivated by the hope that intergenerational learning will become normalized and spread, like the ivy the kids draw and hang on their walls — to everywhere else.