Every day around 10 a.m., preschool director Elizabeth Stelle takes a group of children from colorful classrooms up an elevator to sing songs, recite nursery rhymes and make crafts with residents at Jill’s House Memory Care.
Most of the elderly living there have some form of cognitive impairment. The interactions brighten the residents’ mood and help spark memories, while teaching the students to tolerate diversity and disability.
“Really, there’s not a difference between them, between the older and younger,” Stelle said. “They’re people just like everyone else.”
Jill’s House Intergenerational Preschool is the only shared facility in the state for preschoolers and elderly residents with cognitive impairments, community relations coordinator, Heather Kinderthain, said. The model is common outside of the U.S., but there are few like it nationally.
“It is really changing the face of dementia care and early childhood education,” Stelle said. “We’re bringing something different for both tables.”
The preschool has rapidly expanded since opening in September 2017. What started as a gray garage space in the basement of Jill’s House now has three rooms for infants through five-year-olds.
A city grant awarded this fall is helping fund a fourth and final room to open in January, creating more space for infants and one year olds.
The two-to-three-year-olds and three-to-five-year-olds alternate days for their field trips upstairs. Staff bring up infants at least once a day to play.
A few residents sat around a fireplace in the living room Tuesday morning, their expressions solemn.
Downstairs, the lights turned off for clean-up time as the three-to-five-year-olds dumped toys around the edges of the room. The kids scrambled into a line at the door, high-pitched voices shouting over each other.
Stelle reminded the kids that they would soon enter the residents’ home and should treat them with respect. They need to use quiet voices. They should have walking feet and listening ears. They shouldn't climb on furniture.
To practice consent, the children are reminded they can always say no if they don’t want to be touched or hugged by the residents.
After a short elevator ride, about 18 kids filed down the hallway to the living room, greeting residents as they passed by. About 15 residents filled the circle of green and brown chairs and couches, and the kids rushed to sit in the center.
Four-year-old Emma Barton immediately ran to one resident’s lap. The two have a special relationship, Stelle said.
Once Barton entered, in her white long-sleeved shirt with a gold sparkly star, a smile rarely left the resident’s face. Stelle said she doesn’t see the woman smile or respond much when the kids aren’t there.
“I truly think the children have given some of our residents something to live for,” Kinderthain said.
Stelle plans songs, stories and crafts for the 20-minute visit — things the residents wouldn’t necessarily do on their own, but help evoke memories they might have shared with their own children.
Both age groups sang along to the nursery rhyme “The Gingerbread Man” before coloring their own paper gingerbread men. Stelle said the daily craft time helps residents practice fine motor skills.
Residents don’t have to participate in the visits, and some prefer to observe from the outskirts. So much activity can be stressful, Stelle said.
The preschool opened one year after Jill’s House was established as a memory care center in October 2016.
The children were a natural fit for the assisted living facility, which is rooted in “person-centered care,” or the idea of fostering relationships and bringing life into the home, Kinderthain said.
Stelle was initially the only teacher and director for eight students in one room.
But the day after the YMCA’s Center for Children and Families closed last November, Stelle’s phone and email filled with messages.
She had an open house the Monday after the YCCF’s announcement, and her room capacity for 18 students filled within the first half hour. By January, the preschool expanded to eight staff and 30 students.
After the kids said goodbye to each elder and their tiny footsteps faded down the hall, the residents’ smiles remained. They laughed and talked about the snow falling outside.
“Every day it’s heartwarming,” Kinderthain said.
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