Young at heart

Little kids and old folks find comfort in each other’s company at an intergenerational center.

At age 3, Annie was everyone’s darling, an outgoing little imp who amused the elderly clients at the fledgling day services facility with her songs, dances, and endless prattle. The daughter of a staff member there, she was short on inhibitions, known to hop up on the lap of the wheelchair-bound clients and ask for a ride around the room.

Click on the photo below for a slideshow view of a day in the life at St. Ann's!

One of the men there, Stan, was prone to grand mal seizures that ripped through him like a hurricane and left him asleep the rest of the day. There were signs of the impending seizure, which everyone at the small care center had come to know, but usually it was difficult to find a way to stop the seizures from developing. Little Annie happened to see these signs in Stan one day.

She jumped up in his lap and gave him a tight hug. The symptoms stopped, and Stan was saved from the seizure.

Edna Lonergan, a Sister of St. Francis of Assisi, has never forgotten that priceless interaction. “I have to say, the next time I saw Stan in the early stages of a seizure, I followed Annie’s lead and gave him a hug. It worked for me, too!” she says. That was not the only lesson Lonergan took from Annie, though. “I decided right then that if I ever built a day services facility, it was going to be intergenerational.”

That was 1983 and the beginning of St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care in Milwaukee, recognized as a model at the United Nations World Conference on Aging as well as the recipient of local, state, and national awards. “Today there are well over 500 such programs nationwide,” says Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United in Washington, D.C. “In the past five years, there has been a dramatic increase in interest in intergenerational shared sites.”

But St. Ann Center remains unique. Sponsored by Lonergan’s religious order, it is first and foremost a community. “Franciscans have a great love for diversity,” Lonergan says. “There are abilities and disabilities in everyone.” Elderly in wheelchairs, mentally and physically disabled persons of all ages, and children as young as 6 weeks all mingle together. The center is faith based, Lonergan says, with a diversity of beliefs but common bonds of respect, trust, and caring.

Lonergan now travels internationally speaking about St. Ann, but the center started very small. Working in her convent’s infirmary in Milwaukee, she admired the care that the sisters received. “I wished this level of care could be available to the public, so I started a small elderly day care facility there in the convent basement,” Lonergan says. “We started with four clients and some helpers. They were young moms, so I suggested they bring their children with them.”

As the elderly group grew, the symbiosis between the children and adults became increasingly evident. “When kids were there, they were a motivator to the others. Participation increased. Everyone was happier,” she says.

The recently expanded, 54,000-square-foot facility has a spacious, open look that defines its attitude. A lounge with a fireplace and piano opens into a large atrium, with a solid wall of four-story windows and tables and chairs interspersed through the indoor garden. Adults can choose to be in one of three living areas, each with their own living room, dining area, and kitchen. The children’s area has eight large, friendly rooms for infants, toddlers, and pre-schoolers. A swimming pool is also on the main floor, and every child takes swim lessons before leaving. The pool, as well as a nine-person hot tub for relaxation, is also available to adults.

Each child has scheduled activity times with adults every week. For example on Tuesdays the 2-year-olds have cooking class with the adults. Adults in the “rock-a-bye club” have the opportunity to hold and rock the babies three times a week. The list of intergenerational activities includes music therapy, woodworking projects, art projects, gardening, and ceramics. St. Ann also has the Shepherd House for clients with Alzheimer’s or other dementia conditions, and the children spend time there every week.

St. Ann Center has a population of 84 children and 90 people with disabilities or frailties. In addition the center has a day-camp for school-age children up to age 11, as well as camp “buddies” aged 12 to 15, with 65 campers and 100 buddies. Countless more adults come to the center for a la carte services, such as bathing with wheelchair-accessible whirlpool tubs, and services such as occupational, speech, physical, massage, restorative, and psychological therapies. A medical clinic is available, as well as a registered nurse and podiatrist. Even a beauty salon is available for hair and nails.

Elizabeth LaFlore has been coming to St. Ann’s for about eight years. “I love it here, especially making ceramics. I like getting a massage, too.” LaFlore has eight children and 50 grandchildren. She lives with her oldest daughter, who is a paraplegic, so like many of the clients, LaFlore uses the center’s van shuttle service to travel there.

For the caregivers, St. Ann Center allows them to work, take care of other family needs, and have the break they need from home care. “The idea is to allow the elderly or those with disabilities to stay in their homes as long as possible,” Lonergan says. “When they go to nursing homes, everything familiar is gone, and they are isolated from their friends and family. Plus the rest of the family loses out on the wisdom and spirituality of the elderly. They have much to give to the young.”

Lonergan realized that caregivers sometimes need to get away overnight, so in April 2007 St. Ann opened the Respite Center, connected to the main building. The nine rooms are available to overnight guests, and the center provides 24-hour care, medication management, and three hot meals. Most importantly the Respite Center carries the same message of warm acceptance and community that pervades the rest of St. Ann’s.

The Respite Center’s opening ceremony on Holy Thursday, during Passover, brought blessings from Milwaukee’s Archbishop Timothy Dolan and from Rabbi Ronald Shapiro from Congregation Shalom. “Tonight we will celebrate Holy Thursday with the washing of feet,” Dolan said. “That’s what you do here every day.”

Patty Gayes is a freelance writer from Gurnee, Illinois. Martin Lueders is an award-winning photojournalist based in the Midwest.

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