Sitting next to his senior citizen friend, Christopher Xu wiggled a diaper pin in front of her face. He proudly declared he knew it was a safety pin. The woman in the wheelchair corrected him.
“Those are for holding up diapers,” she said, smiling.
Christopher dropped the pins and started to laugh. Heads and wheelchairs turned toward the giggling 6-year-old as he reached for another item on the table — a pink foam roller — and pushed it into his short hair as his new friend, Irma, age 95, explained how she used to use those, too.
She reminisced and the boy listened as Kimberly Barr looked on and grinned. Building intergenerational relationships was her goal in proposing a unique partnership between KinderCare Learning and Brookdale Senior Living centers.
Once a month, Barr, director of the Shoreview KinderCare, leads about 10 children in a single-file line a couple blocks to the Brookdale center in North Oaks.
There, a group of seniors with varying stages of dementia and Alzheimer’s sit around tables, waiting for the kids to arrive.
For Irma memories and words often stall, caught behind the curtains of disease. But on Wednesday, sitting next to a squirming and smiling little boy, the sentences came easily. She explained the vintage items he didn’t recognize — an embroidered hankie, a bottle opener, a sequined coin purse.
Before this spring, children at KinderCare used to visit nursing homes a couple times a year. They’d get paraded in on holidays but there would be no conversation, no relationship-building, Barr said.
“Those visits didn’t have a larger meaning,” she said. “I wanted to go more often and really get the kids working with and learning from seniors with dementia.”
So last month, KinderCare and Brookdale launched intergenerational programs in Blaine, Eagan, Edina and West St. Paul. They hope to reach all 10 Brookdale centers in the metro area by the end of the year.
“This has really grown and turned into a mutually beneficial program,” Barr said.
Wednesday marked the fifth visit at the North Oaks location. “The more often we go, the better the visits are, the deeper the relationships grow,” Barr said.
As the children filed in, Barr reminded them that some of the seniors can’t always talk. The kids nodded — they knew this from other visits and from presentations by the Alzheimer’s Association.
“I just want to come here and make them happy,” 9-year-old Lailah Urvanski said as she put the finishing touches on a pastel portrait of a woman who had dozed off.
“I’m going to give this to her,” Lailah said of her picture. “I love it when they smile at us or start to talk. That way we get to know them better.”
Christopher has gotten to know all the regulars, the ones who come every week and smile and wave when they see him come through the door. He often asks Barr about them between visits — When do I get to see Bob? Is Skip going to be there next time?
From across the room on Wednesday, Christopher caught 72-year-old Bob Richardson’s eye. Richardson lifted his fingers into a hesitant wave. Christopher was still laughing about the diaper pins — “It was just the funniest thing” — but he waved back.
Richardson never had children. He spent his years as a serious businessman, said Christine Franklin, program coordinator at Brookdale. But every month, when he hears that the children are coming, he goes into the lobby and looks for Christopher.
“I love seeing them grow up,” Richardson said as he put the finishing touches on his drawing of the farm he remembers and told Lailah about. “I always learn from them too. Everybody learns.”
As the kids left, single file out the door, Christopher turned to wave at Bob and Skip.
The door closed and a woman said, to no one in particular, “Boy, they sure are cute.”
Skip Mogren, 65, smiled. “Especially that one little guy.”
He stopped, struggling to think of the name of the 6-year-old who is always so eager to see him, the one who couldn’t stop laughing about a diaper pin. The name didn’t come.
But he recalled their conversation, how they talked about a little bit of everything, how he reminded him of his own childhood.
As Barr likes to say, it’s easier to remember the things that touch your heart.