Kindergarten in a retirement home proves a hit with young and old

This article was initially published in the Globe and Mail on December 30th 2011.  To view the story on the Globe and Mail website, please click here.

The sun-drenched common room at the south end of Columbia Garden Village retirement home in Invermere, B.C., is quiet most days. The shuffle of slippers on linoleum, the clink of a coffee mug in the sink, or the click of knitting needles are often the only sounds.

But every Tuesday and Friday, 18 kindergartners from Eileen Madson Primary School arrive in a yellow school bus and take over, turning the home’s common room into a classroom, and the home’s residents into active participants. The kindergartners go about their lessons, crafts and play time surrounded by the seniors who live there. Some elders watch from the sidelines, others roll up their sleeves and build block towers or indulge in a reading of a Scooby-Doo storybook.

It’s enough to draw Kay Maras out of her room every week. She makes the 50-metre trip down the carpeted hallway and parks her walker by the door, then watches as the children pour in with their rainbow-coloured ski jackets and Tinkerbell lunch boxes.

It took months of physical therapy for her to build up enough strength in her 84-year-old legs for the walk. She sometimes helps the kids with reading, writing and art projects, and being needed is good motivation.

“You wouldn’t think the children would want to spend the time with us, but they do,” Ms. Maras said one recent morning, after reviewing the letter ‘i’ with five-year-old Kayla Wolfenden.

With fewer children growing up with a grandparent in the home, emerging research suggests they are missing out on rich learning opportunities. The Invermere collaboration is the brainchild of Rocky Mountain School District’s superintendent, Paul Carriere, and his wife, Barbara, a kindergarten teacher.

The Carrieres were sitting on the dock at their family cottage on the Sunshine Coast in the summer of 2010, when Barbara read about a kindergarten classroom located in a seniors home in Oklahoma. The program had seen the children’s reading improve while medication rates among the seniors had declined.

Bobbing together on the waters of Powell Lake, the Carrieres decided this was something they should bring to Invermere. In their small mountain community of 4,000, Columbia Gardens was one of just two retirement homes, and it serves a relatively independent population of seniors. Administrators there embraced the idea, and after two conference calls to the ministries of health and education, the Carrieres had the go-ahead.

They had an open house for parents and seniors that December, and the program has been up and running since January of 2011.

Even on their first day in the home, the children seemed naturally drawn to the elders. There’s a symmetry between them, each in life stages that leave them a little vulnerable.

As learning partners they’re a good match. Reading, for instance, is a skill often preserved long after age has eroded other mental faculties. And Barbara Carriere says the seniors make for patient teachers, and the children are at ease around them. “They’re just completely accepting of each other,” she said. “It makes for a million magic moments.”

The concept of intergenerational learning is winning a small following. In Toronto, at the Baycrest retirement home, seniors act as consultants for a high-school philosophy class by talking about death and aging. In Cleveland, a charter elementary school has seen benefits for inner-city students who collaborate with adults of different ages. And in Jenks, Okla. – the Carrieres’ inspiration – a kindergarten classroom relocated full-time to a retirement home has boosted students’ standardized test scores in reading, lowered medication rates and improved reported quality of life among its residents.

The Invermere initiative is believed to be the only one of its kind in Canada.

“The life experience of the elder can really enrich the learning of younger people,” said Bianca Stern, director of Baycrest, a research facility associated with the University of Toronto. “It’s a new concept, and it’s challenging the stereotype of aging by tapping into the strengths of seniors.”

This fall, when Ms. Maras’s therapy had made her strong enough to visit the class, Ms. Carriere prepped her students with a lesson on osteoporosis, explaining that their visitor’s bones were fragile.

When she comes to visit, the children move gingerly around Ms. Maras, careful not to bump her legs or her walker. They slip in and out of the chair beside her, bringing storybooks, toys and drawings to show off.

The students have responded well to the program, referring to the residents as “grandmas and grandpas.” One girl even asked her parents if she could have her birthday party at the retirement home. It’s taught students about aging, death and compassion, and helped coax others out of their shell – like Bill Warbrick, 5, a shy student with static-prone hair who likes to talk about the weather. His teachers describe him as “an old soul.” Most days in his traditional classroom back at Eileen Madson, he plays on his own and rarely asks for help. But when he’s at the retirement home, Bill moves around the room, asking seniors to read to him.

Not everyone is thrilled to see the children – some residents lament the loss of their common room, many prefer sleeping in long after class has begun, and others blame the children for a flu outbreak last winter.

“I think they’re a little intimidated by the children,” said 77-year-old Fran Kimpton, a retired teacher. She’s one of about 10 residents out of the home’s 68 who visit the classroom regularly.

To address those concerns, Ms. Carriere launched an outreach program this school year, with the children hanging their artwork on the doors of residents.

“There definitely are some residents who just aren’t interested, they want to be left alone,” said Adrienne Turner, the community manager in charge of activities at the home. “But more and more of them are warming up.”

The payoffs can be huge. A study in the U.S. found that older adults who worked with children in a school setting had less stress and a better quality of life compared to those living at a high-end facility interacting with their peers. And the cost is low: The parent council at Eileen Madson raised just over $2,200 to cover the cost of their intergenerational program. Most of the budget went toward transportation and supplies for the off-site classroom.

“This really isn’t something out of reach,” Ms. Carriere said. “There are senior facilities everywhere and schools everywhere, and for the cost of busing and some coat hooks you can do something that really makes a difference.”

Ms. Maras’s bones are feeling strong. She’s walking more, and finding a sense of purpose in her days.

“It turns out I really love teaching the kids,” she said.

This was something of a surprise, as Ms. Maras never married or had a family of her own. The trick to keeping children happy, she says, is enabling them to feel independent.

“You can’t help them too much,” she said. “You have to let them figure it out on their own.”

© The Globe and Mail