It’s quiet in the sunny midmorning light of the memory care wing of the Commons on Marice, a senior living facility of 150 in the north part of Eagan. Then the elevator dings in the next room, and you can hear the bustle of small excited voices getting closer.
Thirteen three, four, and five year-olds come into the room, tumbling into the center of a circle of chairs and a couch. Within moments the nine seniors, mostly in their 80s with Alzheimer’s and dementia, are smiling to match the children. Jennifer Ackland, a music therapist, starts strumming her guitar and getting both sides warmed up for their “Musical Safari” program.
A few days later, the kids and seniors joined in a Hawaiian-themed barbecue to celebrate the collaboration that has brought them and others together for the last fifteen years.
The nonprofit arm of the Goodman Group, which owns the Commons, also runs the Intergenerational Learning Center, an educational daycare just down the street. This one of three preschool age classes that come on Mondays throughout the year. Throughout the year, seniors also join the children for regular story times and toddler classes as well as dances and programs for art and theater.
The appeal of acquainting the youngest and oldest members of society has spread throughout the country, said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a national organization for intergenerational programs.
Many extended families live far apart, she said, and adult children want to make sure that their parents connect with children.
The Generations United website lists more than 20 sites in Minnesota that provide intergenerational programming. Ebenezer, the senior care company, has child care centers built into facilities in Burnsville and St. Louis Park.
The repeated interaction helps kids become comfortable with seniors and how they’re different from other adults, said Denise Gustafson, executive director of the Intergenerational Learning Center.
She contrasted the experience with her own memory of being scared on a visit to her grandfather’s nursing home.
It couldn’t feel more different at the music class. One little girl, in a pink dress adorned with a cartoon snail, is inseparable from a senior with curly hair and glasses. They partner together during each activity, holding hands. Hugging her from behind, the woman helps the little girl move to the music as Ackland plays songs.
The collaboration with the center has other classes, including regular preschool story times and toddler classes. But it’s clear that music plays the largest role.
Ackland, who has taught the Musical Safari class here since last July, said music is “a natural way” for the generations to connect. The musical part of the brain is one of the most resilient to cognitive decline, she said. Seniors who are losing other capabilities can still recognize lyrics and rhythm of music. “It’s a way for them to feel successful,” she said.
At the end of the 45-minute class, Ackland plays a song to the tune of “The More We Get Together.” The children shake hands and wave goodbye to their “grandmas and grandpas.” They’ll see each other at the 15th anniversary party a few days later, and this week they’ll be back for a story time.
Graison Hensley Chapman is a Northfield freelance writer.