Guest Columns

Driving out loneliness through intergenerational relationships

Angie McAllister
Angie McAllister

Growing up, I had the blessing to spend large amounts of time with my grandmother. She taught me how to set a table properly, cook macaroni and cheese, and most importantly, how to believe I could accomplish anything I set my mind to. Research shows that in today's busy world, many children aren't able to spend much time with a cherished grandparent, for a variety of reasons.

Not only was my grandmother one of the greatest influences in my life, but she was my strongest advocate as well. I always recognized the benefit of having a relationship with her and how that shaped and molded my life, but what I didn't realize was the power it held upon her life. For her, our relationship held just the right mix of spontaneity and companionship that had a huge impact not only on her mental health, but her overall physical condition as well.

How do we introduce this concept to the world of long-term care and truly redefine the boundaries of intergenerational relationships post nursing home admission? Most nursing homes across the nation invite children in to visit on special occasions and holidays. While this approach is good, I have always found one important element missing in the equation: relationships. When children come in and out of the home for holiday visits, they are there for a short time only and there is no true opportunity for relationships to be formed. Naturally, elders delight in seeing the children, and the children delight in receiving some prize that brought them over to the home in the first place, but for the most part there is no communication beyond that initial activity.

In 2008, Pickett Care and Rehabilitation Center, in Byrdstown, TN, changed the way the community views intergenerational programming. Programming in every sense of the word, means to predetermine a behavior. At PCCR, the team chose to shatter that viewpoint and create a new paradigm for intergenerational relationships in the nursing home setting. They created Camp Picket, a summer camp program that takes place in the center of the nursing home. The summer camp involves learning circles and many other activities, including team activities, which are intended to nurture relationships over the duration of an entire summer between the children who attend the camp and the Elders who live in the home.

Camp Pickett began in 2008 as an alternative to child care expenses for employees and a program that “might” enhance quality of life for the elders in the home. It grew to be more than that. As the summer progressed, we were able to see something magical taking place in our home. Elders and children were teaching each other great things. Elders passed their wisdom in gardening, farming, and other things on to the children, while the children were able to teach the Elders how to use the Nintendo Wii and text on a cell phone. What was intended to fix a “call-in” problem that the home had from time to time, actually was impacting the entire home. The program known as Camp Pickett was no longer a program at all. But was morphing into a community all its own.

In the first summer alone, elders who were previously depressed and refused to come out of their room, were living a new lifestyle of purpose and enhanced well-being overall. Staff members were able to save over $18,000 in childcare expenses, and the home logged the equivalent of over $5,000 in volunteer hours. Not only was Camp Pickett a success, it was a new standard for intergenerational relationships for the entire company.

Fast forward to 2016. Camp Signature is home to over 1,000 children from across 47 different communities of Signature HealthCare. The model is a new “staple” for intergenerational programming in our homes. Children have spent the summer participating in activities designed to promote the development of relationships with elders. Some of these activities include field trips to local attractions, building art pieces together and participating in servant leadership projects in the community.

The Eden Alternative mentions loneliness, helplessness, and boredom as the three plagues that account for suffering in Elders. The beauty of Camp Signature is that it tackles these three plagues with a head on approach intended to eradicate them from the environment forever. The companionship established in the process of relationship building between the two generations serves as a foundation for beautiful friendships to blossom.

The joy brought to the elders who participate in the summer camp program is cut from the cloth of purpose. Purpose is something that defines us when we have it and destroys us when we do not. Finally, the spontaneity that having children in the long term care environment brings could never be replaced. The pure joy of seeing the elders interact with the children on a daily basis is something that has to be witnessed to truly be understood.

I am convinced there is no better equation than placing children and elders in each other's lives with the purpose of growing community. When planting the seeds of culture change in a nursing home environment, watering it with initiatives such as this will only stimulate growth and the true feeling of “home” that we are all searching for.

Angie McAllister is the Director of Cultural Transformation-Signature Hometown.

Guest Columns

Guest columns are written by long-term care industry experts, ranging from academics and thought leaders to administrators and CEOs.

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