SALT LAKE CITY — Getting older is physically demanding and can also be difficult mentally. Many seniors suffer from loneliness, but one local nonprofit has found a creative solution by introducing some younger friends.
Fridays are special days at the Neighborhood House. Once a week, kids in daycare ditch the playground to visit with aging seniors in adult care services. It's an intergenerational experience called the Grandfriend Program.
"Let's get dancing!" the activities director shouted during our visit.
Nine-year-old Alesha Aumua immediately connected with 71-year-old Linda Curtis. "This way, that way," Alesha chanted as the two started dancing to the Macarena together.
Alesha led the moves "because they don't know it,” she said through giggles. "They make up funny dances and it makes you laugh so hard."
Curtis provided the stories.
"Where did you get all your bracelets? They're super nice on you!" Alesha asked Curtis. "My son gave it to me,” she replied.
Throughout the hour-long activity, Alesha asked Curtis all sorts of questions.
"Do you love dancing?” she asked.
“Oh, I do!” Curtis said laughing.
“You're wearing a lot of blue. I bet your favorite color is blue!" the 9-year-old remarked.
Intermountain Healthcare's Joan Shelley, a geriatric nurse practitioner, said intergenerational experiences like this are mutually beneficial.
"The adults have an opportunity to feel like they're valued and that they can contribute even if they're cognitively impaired,” Shelley said. She said it keeps them mentally engaged "because they're trying to pull memories out, talk about things."
Shelley said it’s especially helpful for people with chronic illnesses, like Linda Anderson's 72-year-old husband, Kirk Anderson.
"It's a lonely life, having Alzheimer’s disease," Linda Anderson said. "You are very isolated."
Since his diagnosis ten years ago, Kirk Anderson hasn’t had much interaction with some of his old friends. Shelley said isolation accelerates dementia, depression and a low appetite, but interaction stimulates mood and thought patterns.
"He'll come home and say, 'The kids came today!'" Linda Anderson said.
Anderson thinks her husband relates better to the little kids than adults in a way “because they have a hard time following adult conversation,” she explained.
Shelley said it’s important for those adults to have something to look forward to and friends who don’t judge them. Plus, she said the interaction keeps the seniors physically active.
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"It improves balance and stability, walking," she said.
Shelley said the kids love the attention too.
“They have an opportunity for somebody who has time for them,” she said. “They sit down and read stories and color; and the activities are exciting, rather than a mom who's very rushed and doesn't have time to sit for an hour.”
She said the older adults have a lot of wisdom to impart, as do the kids.
"It just makes me very happy … being with the grandfriends," Alesha said with a smile on her face.
After the last song ended, Curtis gave Alesha a big hug and said, "You taught me something! How about that!”
Shelley encourages people who don't have grandparents nearby to visit a local senior center and find an activity to participate in together, like coloring or cooking, that allows for conversation.