When toddlers and seniors spend time together, everyone wins

When senior citizens and toddlers share space, everyone wins.

Since 2020, pre-schoolers from the Montessori Children's House of Bay City and seniors at New Hope Bay Assisted Living and Memory Care Community have regular visits. 

A physical activity, such as holding a parachute up for the kids to run under, gets everyone moving during the visits.The partnership is a win for everyone involved benefits both sides. The program is an example of the type of high-quality child-care programs the community needs, says Rich Van Tol, who coordinates early childhood education programs through the Bay-Arenac ISD

(Read about the ongoing child-care crisis in Bay County in this Jan. 12, 2023 Route Bay City article.)

"Kids light up our lives," says Rumi Shahzad, Founder and Managing Director of New Hope Bay Assisted Living and Memory Care Community. "There's a lot of learning the seniors have from their lifelong journey that they can share."

The kids are just as excited to walk from their side of the 668 N. Pine Road campus to where the seniors live, says Pamela Skutt, Director of the Montessori Children's House of Bay City.. 

The staff at the pre-school and the assisted living center see smiles on the faces of everyone involved in the visits."The children are so excited when we talk about going to see the seniors," Skutt says.

New Hope Bay opened in 2016 as a senior living community providing independent and assisted living as well as memory care. The Montessori Children's House of Bay City opened in a building on the campus in 2020.

Don't tell the kids this is educational. They think they're just playing with their new friends.The goal of housing the children's center was not only to expand child-care options, but also to encourage the residents to interact with the pre-schoolers. In the beginning, safety measures put in place to protect against the spread of COVID-19 kept the two groups apart.

For several months now, though, groups of 10 kids walk from the day care to the senior living facility. There, they work together on craft projects and games. As the day of the visit nears, Skutt says the kids began eagerly coloring pictures and making cards to take with them.

"There are smiles on ear to ear for everybody," Shahzad adds.

Laura Atchinson, Activities Director for New Hope Bay, says the feedback from residents is positive. "It's great. I'm so glad we can interact with them. I wish they could come more often."

Skutt says the program helps the pre-schoolers in several ways. They practice large motor skills on the walk to the center. "It's a little bit of a trek for the little friends," she says. While working on crafts, their small motor skills get a workout.

"It helps foster language because while they're working on projects with the residents, they're also carrying on conversations," she adds.

As soon as the pre-schoolers hear they get to visit the senior center, they start working on coloring pictures to give to the seniors.The visits also benefit the seniors. More visitors also alleviate loneliness, which is a common problem for many older people.

"We are blessed that many of our residents have families coming in," Shahzad says. "But with COVID, we had to put restrictions on visitors. Loneliness increased."

Shahzad adds that New Hope Bay focuses on five wellness concepts – physical, emotional, social, spiritual, and intellectual. Building relationships with younger people often meets several of those needs.

For now, the relationships are organic. The youngsters and seniors gravitate to each other. Eventually, Atchinson says she can envision more-frequent visits between kids and specific residents.

"They're just a joy to have around," Atchinson says. 

Shahzad says numerous studies show intergenerational connections pay dividends for everyone involved. For that reason, he'd like to expand the program. He wants to start programs for college students studying healthcare careers to spend time at New Hope Bay.

"It gives them an exposure," to senior services, Shahzad says. "Some may find a calling to work with seniors."

Seniors benefit from the energy of their young visitors. The kids get a chance to practice language skills alongside small motor skills. The primary reason for the visits, though, is to enjoy each other's company.Even if the students don't discover a calling, Shahzad says they will bring new energy and ideas to the center. 

"They're young and energetic. They have thoughts and ideas on new activities," he says.

After the visits, Atchinson notices a difference in the residents. Even residents with severe dementia light up when the kids visit. The positive effect lasts long after the visit ends.

"They're calmer, happier, and they carry that with them for several days," she says. 

Atchinson and Shahzad says such moments give the staff joy too.

"This is a new chapter in their lives," Shahzad says. "This isn't a place where they are going to whither away. They are writing the next chapter and their lives and we help them writer that new chapter."

Atchinson says whenever she asks residents what they want to do, they always ask about seeing young people. She'd like to see more young people applying to work at the facility, adding that the young and old benefit from interacting.

"We've somehow lost our rich tapestry of people living in multi-generational homes," Shahzad says.

Skutt says the visits fit within the Montessori Philosophy of Education, which the center follows.

The Montessori Children's House of Bay City is licensed for 22 children at one time. Some children only attend for half-days, meaning 26 children are enrolled now. The center is not taking new students now, but is opening enrollment for summer and fall programs.

The public is invited to the facility's Annual Open House from 10 a.m. to noon on Sat., March 4.

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Read more articles by Kathy Roberts.

Kathy Roberts, a graduate of Central Michigan University, moved to Bay City in 1987 to start a career in the newspaper industry. She was a reporter and editor at the Bay City Times for 15 years before leaving to work at the Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, Covenant HealthCare, and Ohno Design. In 2019, she returned to her storytelling roots as the Managing Editor of Route Bay City. When she’s not editing or writing stories, you can find her reading books, knitting, or visiting the bars of Bay County. You can reach Kathy at editor@RouteBayCity.com