Joe O'Donnell's favorite playmate at his day care center is 2-year-old Katie Sheehan.

The two are seemingly inseparable. They play together, snack together, paint together, sometimes even nap together at the Ebenezer Ridges Care Center in Burnsville, where they are both enrolled.

O'Donnell, who joined Ebenezer last year, is Katie's 85-year-old great-grandfather.

They are brought together daily as part of an innovative intergenerational approach to senior and child care that is garnering national attention.

The program gives hundreds of seniors at the independent and assisted-living facility the chance to interact with more than 50 kids at the on-site child care center. Its advocates say it's good for both groups, giving the kids an appreciation for their elders while injecting new vitality into the seniors' lives and, research shows, improving their mental health.

This month, Ebenezer was named one of five finalists for a $100,000 prize from the Eisner Foundation in Beverly Hills, Calif., for its work helping children and seniors.

At Ebenezer, Katie has not only her biological great-grandfather, but also dozens of other "grandmas" and "grandpas" to play with each day.

"Best decision we made," said Jason Sheehan, Katie's father. "We are extremely grateful that such an amazing program like Ebenezer exists."

The program began almost 10 years ago and combines seniors, ranging in age from 60 to over 100, with more than 50 preschool children, some as young as 6 weeks.

"The kids add sunshine," said Joy Donlon, a resident at Ebenezer since 2009. "That's the best way to describe it."

The two groups read together, draw together, even nap together, although the latter is not always a scheduled activity for the seniors. The playground is designed with activities for both age groups.

"The best part about Katie and Grandpa being in the same facility is that they get to see each other and perform activities throughout the week," Jason Sheehan said. "Every day when I pick up Katie, we get to spend time with [him] before he joins the other residents for dinner."

Young and old

The program is one of the few in the country where a day care center is incorporated into a senior campus, according to the Eisner Foundation, which named Ebenezer a finalist for the national prize because of its pioneering work.

"It's a relatively new concept," said Trent Stamp, executive director of the Eisner Foundation. "It's demonstrably more complicated, more complex and more expensive."

Stamp and researchers in the field say the program is also a more effective way to reach both age groups.

Generations United, a national association of 100 groups working on the issue, says seniors regularly interacting with children get a new zest for life.

The group says this can lead to fewer falls, better memory skills and improved abilities in dealing with medical conditions such as depression and Alzheimer's disease.

Generations United, of which Ebenezer is a member, says that children get a better appreciation for the elderly, learn better socialization skills and show decreases in negative behaviors such as illegal drug and alcohol use.

"Research shows that when the generations come together, everyone benefits, children and youth, older adults and the community at large," says a fact sheet on the Generations United website.

Participants in the program, and their relatives, concur with the group's findings.

"She just lights up when the kids come in," said Jan Johnson, whose mother lives at Ebenezer and participates in the day care program.

"Through the years, our son met many grandmas and grandpas," said Ellen Anderson, who enrolled her son in 2004 and now has a daughter in the program. "Having other grandmas and grandpas to interact with is good for both the kids and adults." 

Erin Hilligan, the campus administrator at Ebenezer, said the program began when employees asked for an on-campus day care facility.

Out of that was born the idea of mingling both populations.

"I think it's a huge benefit for everyone," said Hilligan, who has enrolled her children in the Ebenezer day care. "Most of the children who are here don't have grandparents or have them nearby. One of the main reasons that parents pick is to have the intergenerational experience."

The age of the children, she said, helps them to be open-minded about the seniors and their physical limitations.

She said kids think nothing of answering the same question over and over again from a senior with Alzheimer's.

The kids treat the seniors the same as any other adult, regardless of whether they use a cane or a wheelchair.

"We had a resident who used to play Santa Claus in department stores and was in a wheelchair," Hilligan said. "We cleaned his suit and let him play Santa for the kids. When the kids came in, they said, 'Look, it's Santa.' They saw the wheelchair, but they didn't think about the wheelchair."

As a result of the program's success, Eisner has singled it out as one of the best in the country. In an online poll, Ebenezer was the top choice with more than 11,000 votes.

"They're in the business of making the lives of senior citizens better," Stamp said. "It's very easy nowadays to warehouse seniors. So to say to them 'We think what is best for you is to engage with children' was a refreshing kind of idea that really resonated with us. They seem to have a legitimate commitment to intergenerational solutions."

Heron Marquez • 952-707-9994