Making a timeless connection

  • Article by: JULIE PFITZINGER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 29, 2012 - 10:52 AM

Young visitors and seniors in care centers benefit when they interact. For two home-schooled families, monthly meetings at an Inver Grove Heights residence have become much more than a service project.

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Good Samaritan Society resident Carole Donaldson, volunteer Sophie Stone, 12, resident Marie Haas, volunteers Sarah Stone and 8-year-old daughter Bella, resident Rosie Brink and volunteer Bronson Stone, 14, listened as Grayson Stone, 10, played an electronic keyboard at the Inver Grove Heights care center.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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In the activity room at Good Samaritan Society in Inver Grove Heights, the Dunbar and Stone children are busy passing out bowls of ice cream to 10 senior residents, all in wheelchairs, who are quiet but eager as they receive the treat.

These monthly Friday visits from the children, all home-schooled students from Woodbury who range in age from 6 to 14, have become much more than a service project. In the two years since they have been visiting Good Samaritan's skilled-care unit, the kids have discovered how much their attention means to those who might rarely have young visitors.

Sarah Stone and Jennifer Dunbar, who are friends, chose to bring their children to Good Samaritan because of a family connection: Stone's husband used to visit the same residence when he was growing up in the area.

"He didn't have any relatives living here; his family just made it a habit to visit on a regular basis," said Stone. "So we're doing the same thing."

Stone is mother to Bronson, 14; Sophie, 12; Grayson, 10, and Bella, 8. Dunbar is mother to Joshua, 13; Sharon, 11; Sam, 9, and Hannah, 6.

In need of company

Most people today who are in long-term care facilities are typically in their 80s, 90s or 100s, said Cheryl Steiner, therapeutic recreation and volunteer services director at Good Samaritan. Their grandchildren are usually grown and even if that generation has children of its own, many are working parents who don't have much time to visit.

"Of our long-term residents, I would say that we have less than 15 percent who have younger family members visiting," said Steiner. "We started offering inter-generational programming here with our home-schooling families, a Girl Scout troop and two school groups because children are really so vital to the quality of life for our residents."

During the recent visit by the two families, the residents gathered were not actively engaging the children in conversation -- although the level of conversation varies depending on which residents attend. But simply watching the children talking to one another or moving around the room seemed to delight the residents.

Chickens and goats

The April visit was a different story. For the second year in a row, the Stones, who raise chickens and goats, brought a few of their animals with them into the activity room. It was a huge hit with residents, numbering close to 25 that day.

"There was a gentleman who took a baby goat into his lap. He didn't say a word, but the goat just melted into his arms," said Stone. "We figured he must have spent time on a farm at some point in his life -- we called him 'the goat whisperer.'"

Over the years, the children have had the opportunity to learn from some of the residents about their own lives. Sharon Dunbar recalled conversations with a woman who grew up in Italy in a poor family; she told Sharon about traveling to the United States by ship. Bronson Stone has been known to bring some of his favorite military history books with him and engage in conversations with World War II and Korean War veterans.

Not surprisingly, the children have grown attached to many of the residents. Recently, Stone received a phone call from Steiner telling her about the sudden death of one of their Friday regulars.

"She wanted me to let my kids know this woman had passed away because they were particularly fond of her," said Stone.

The families and staff at Good Samaritan take turns planning the monthly activities, which are always kept very simple, with the visits typically an hour long. "We usually do the craft, have a snack, read a story or sing a song," Jennifer Dunbar said. "A lot of times, they will also do puzzles or play cards. A couple of the residents taught us to play a card game called 'Kings in the Corner' that I'd never heard of before."

Grayson Stone said he always looks forward to the Good Samaritan visits, adding that the residents "are very rarely grumpy."

Steiner said she knows the residents are just as eager to see the kids. "After lunch, one of the residents was going to go and lie down but made me promise to wake her up in time for their visit," said Steiner. "She said, 'I just don't want to miss seeing Sam today.'"

Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer. Have an idea for the Your Family page? E-mail us at tellus@startribune.com with "Your Family" in the subject line.

  • FOR MORE INFORMATION

    If your family is interested in volunteering at a senior residence in your community, contact its staff volunteer coordinator, who can let you know what types of family volunteering opportunities are available.

    Other resources include Hands On Twin Cities, www.handsontwincities.org, which lists a wide variety of organizations looking for volunteers, and Volunteer Match, www.volunteermatch.org, a national database that can help you find volunteer opportunities based on location.

    Doing Good Together at www.doinggood together.org also offers resources for local families as well as suggestions about volunteering as a family and topics to discuss with your children on the subject.

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