Skokie kids throw Valentine’s Day party for Morton Grove seniors
Special bond: Senior Cecilia Sieben visits with Meyer School kindergartener Luna Santos during last week's Valentine's Day pizza party at the school. Seniors from North Grove Manor were the guests of honor. | Jon Langham~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 22, 2013 6:44AM
It was difficult to tell who enjoyed this special Valentine’s Day pizza party more — the kindergartners or the senior citizens they hosted in the cafeteria of Meyer School.
Sitting next to residents of North Grove Manor, an Alzheimer’s, memory care and assisted living facility in Morton Grove, the children hold hands with their guests and each other; they sing songs about love and friendship, they laugh and talk and share stories with newly-formed buddies a dozen or more times their age.
This is intergenerational magic. Although the children met these seniors two other times during visits to North Grove Manor, many of the elders, afflicted with serious memory loss, don’t remember. It hardly matters, though, because the children and seniors appear able to connect seamlessly each time they see each other.
“It’s like riding a bike for them,” said North Grove Manor Life Enrichment Coordinator Patti Mauro. “They may forget but they pick it up quickly.”
“One by one. Two by two and four by four. Love grows...”
While the children sing, some seniors keep beat by tapping on the cafeteria table, others flash a smile as if their own grandchildren are on stage for the first time.
One resident has set up a couple of framed photos of his family so he can look at them as he enjoys the children’s company and eats his lunch.
“A lot of these children don’t have any idea what happens with older people,” said Sally Maurer who teaches music, art, physical education and literacy at Meyer. “In this particular class, many of them don’t have any relationship with a grandparent. This is an opportunity for them to see an older generation and to give something to them.”
District 73.5 educators are thrilled by the benefits that these relationships produce for children, but it wasn’t a pre-planned program, they admit. Maurer volunteers at North Grove Manor and approached Principal Alison Gordon with the idea of bringing over a class for a visit.
“As soon as Sally talked about this idea, I was encouraging and said whatever it takes, we’ll make it happen,” said Gordon, who has seen the benefits of intergenerational relationships as an educator. “It’s always wonderful and magical. There’s something for everyone to gain from this.”
Many psychologists and educators agree about those “win-win” benefits.
“People seek to find meaning in their lives and make sense of the lives they have lived,” according to a report about intergenerational relationships from the University of Florida. “Developing connections with a younger generation can help older adults feel a greater sense of fulfillment. In fact, linking older adults with youth can provide advantages for both groups.”
During the children’s December visit to the Morton Grove facility, they sang to the residents and distributed chocolate-covered pretzels as gifts. The day went so well that the students returned with their parents two weeks later to make Christmas ornaments and share in the special bond they were forming.
District 73.5 Superintendent Kate Donegan went on that trip and immediately took notice of how both groups responded to each other.
“I knew then it was fabulous,” she said.
Donegan’s own son is a kindergartner in the class, so she was also able to appreciate the benefits of the visit on a personal level, she said.
When the children were first preparing for their visit to North Grove Manor, Donegan’s son referred to the hosts as “old people’ and said he was going to get a snack there. Donegan reminded him that the visit wasn’t just about him, but about what the children could give to the seniors.
Her own grandmother died not long ago, and she also reminded her son that all the people he was visiting are somebody else’s loved one.
“He seemed to get it,” Donegan said.
Before their second visit, her son told her he shouldn’t have called them “old people” – they were senior citizens.
Through these relationships, children learn basic levels of communication – how to address people, how to start conversations and introduce themselves, how to make conversation with someone they don’t know well, Donegan said.
The children prepared for the residents’ Valentine’s Day visit by helping to make cookies and cards and by learning their songs. The seniors talked with their caregivers and showed enthusiasm about the visit for days.
“They are so excited and thrilled to have these connections,” Mauro said about the residents. “You can just see it in their faces and how enlivened they are afterwards.”
Meyer School’s intergenerational program with North Grove Manor may have begun by happenstance – only because Maurer volunteers there. But it’s now considered a Meyer pilot program that is certain to expand. New Meyer kindergarten classes are scheduled to visit the seniors in March and April at their Morton Grove home.
“The residents might not even remember this visit tomorrow,” says Maurer looking at children cozying up to their new elderly friends on Valentine’s Day, a warm exchange of smiles clearly on view. “But the kids will remember this, and for today, the (residents) are feeling a lot of love and joy.”