Bridging the generations: Playgroup pairs seniors with young companions

MIDDLEBURY — Reed Allen is a volunteer at Helen Porter Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center in Middlebury. Every Monday, from 10:45 a.m. until noon, he visits with the elderly residents, plays games, listens to stories, sings songs and does crafts. He enjoys going to Helen Porter, home to seniors in their 70s, 80s and 90s, he says, “because it has a lot of toys.”
Reed is four years old.
Since September 2014, Helen Porter, a skilled nursing facility and rehabilitation center, has hosted a weekly playgroup for local children and their caregivers. Should you visit Helen Porter mid-morning on Mondays, you will likely see — and hear — between six to 10 children, from infants to preschoolers, in the center’s Community Room. Observing and interacting with these children are five to 10 elderly Helen Porter residents.
It’s a small gathering, but an extremely important one to all those involved.
“We’ve been talking about this for years,” says Judy Doria, who serves as Helen Porter’s activities specialist.
Nancy Durham, the center’s activities director, initially tried to arrange for classes from a childcare facility to visit the nursing home, but the logistics proved too complicated. Next, Doria invited staff from Helen Porter and Porter Medical Center to bring their own children to a playgroup. She received enthusiastic responses, but “the problem was that all those people work all the time,” and a playgroup didn’t fit into their schedules.
Finally, Doria sent an email about the playgroup to members of the greater Middlebury community. A small group of parents and children began meeting sporadically at Helen Porter last spring, but it wasn’t until the following fall that the playgroup became a fixture, with a committed group of three to five families attending each week.
Helen Porter’s roughly 105 residents are at the nursing home for a variety of physical and cognitive reasons that range from short-term rehabilitation to no longer being able to live alone. Although there is no age requirement for admission, all of the current residents are senior citizens. And that is precisely why Doria and Durham wanted to start a playgroup.
“It is extremely abnormal to cloister any one age group together, away from community,” says Durham. “For some reason we get to the elderly and we think they want to hang out together all the time, but they still want to know what is going on with the younger folk. Music, animals, children and — Bingo! They light up for these; it just touches something.”
MITZI PODUSCHNICK WORKS on a puzzle with Porter resident Carol Morse.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
As our society has become more mobile — with children moving away from their families of origin to attend school, find jobs and start families of their own — sociologists, psychologists and gerontologists have noted our diminishing opportunities for intergenerational interaction. Children may see their grandparents only once a year and elderly members of the community who can’t care for themselves are often sequestered behind nursing home walls. This lack of interaction has deleterious social effects for all age groups, which Durham and Doria hope to remedy through their playgroup.
“(Our elderly residents’) social skills are really diminishing because their world is so small,” Doria explains.
Nancy Durham concurs: “Their world has just shrunk. But because children don’t really see the wheelchair, they’ll open up to (our residents). It means so much to them to have a child go up to them and speak to them and not look afraid.”
Research has shown that children who rarely interact with senior citizens tend to revert to negative stereotypes about aging. With activities like the playgroup and the popular lighted pumpkin patch every fall, Durham says, the goal is “to have kids come in and see that (Helen Porter) is not a scary place. This is not the nursing home people knew from 20 years ago; for the most part this is a pretty busy, happy, fun place.”
That’s certainly how it appears on Monday mornings. On any given week, children attending the Helen Porter playgroup may be assembling puzzles, completing craft projects, tossing balloons or arranging flowers with residents and pitching balls into a mini-basketball hoop. Throughout the fall, Tricia Allen, Ilsley Library’s youth services librarian, led a story time at every playgroup — an activity that her husband, Chris, has continued. And May Poduschnick, of Ilsley Library’s popular “Music and Movement with May,” is usually in attendance, playing her guitar and leading playgroup participants in song.
Poduschnick began attending the Helen Porter playgroup with two of her children in September, after speaking with another mother about their desire to do something community-minded with their children. It can be challenging for families with young children to find appropriate volunteer opportunities, but Poduschnick’s friend had received Doria’s email about the playgroup. They decided to check it out and have become regular attendees.
“The reason I think it’s worth going to is that it’s so good for everybody,” says Poduschnick. “The residents are thrilled to see the kids running around. And it’s good for the kids and me; it brings us a little more awareness that people get older and this is normal; it’s not anything scary.”
Poduschnick, whose parents live in Southern California and in-laws live in Germany, also sees another benefit.
“For our family it’s nice because we don’t have grandparents anywhere near,” she said.
Poduschnick honestly assesses the sometimes awkward dynamics of the multi-generational playgroup.
“It’s a little challenging; the residents aren’t sure how to engage the kids and the kids aren’t quite sure how to interact,” she said.
Despite this, she adds, “The (residents) can’t stop talking about how cute (the kids are) and how fun it is to watch them, even if there isn’t much interaction; they’re just happy seeing babies.”
One resident with whom Poduschnick and her children have developed a relationship is Marie Simone Jacobs, age 93. Jacobs, who was born in the Bronx, N.Y., moved to Vermont with her husband and their three daughters after falling in love with the state while on vacation. Asked why she attends the playgroup, Jacobs chuckles.
“’Cause I love kids. I love coming in and playing with them. We have fun,” she said.
Other Helen Porter residents agree:
“A (resident’s) son said that the only thing his mom perks up for is the children,” Doria reports.
Chris Allen, who attends the playgroup with his two sons, says, “One of the best aspects of going every week is that when we walk in, there are often two or three residents in the common area waiting for us. By now they know who we are and the kids are beginning to recognize them as well. You can plainly see how much this one hour a week means to both parties; faces light up, playing ensues and in no time at all, an hour has passed.”
As for the playgroup’s future, everybody — Helen Porter’s staff, its residents and the current playgroup families — would love to see more families turn up each week.
“We’re hoping to really build relationships,” Doria said. And even though it may not look like much from the outside, that’s just what’s happening at Helen Porter every Monday beginning at 10:45.
TRICIA ALLEN AND her son Bram visit with Porter resident Robert “Buster” Weller during a recent playgroup gathering.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell

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