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Building Bridges

Students read to residents

Students read to residents.

Parkside third grade teacher Michaela Lindemuth had always wanted to create an "adopt a grandparent" program for her students and older adults who might be living in residential facilities who may not have as much contact with their families or friends as they used to.  When her sister, Abigail Ferris, began working at Barclay Friends in West Chester as a resident activity manager, she saw an opportunity to connect her students with older adults embracing the realities of aging. 

A personal care, memory care, skilled nursing and residential living organization, Barclay Friends offers a Dementia Care Unit as well. Unfortunately, however, COVID hit and the possibility of connecting students and seniors in person closed.  

"I had wanted to take my former students, but instead we became pen pals with the residents there," remembered Lindemuth. 

"We sent letters, Valentines, and packages to develop relationships instead."

When she arrived to teach at Parkside, there were still restrictions on visits.  But she had hoped to one day fulfill her plan.  Last month, Parkside third grade students took a trip to meet those residents and bring a little joy to their day.   It was an opportunity to enrich both young and old alike.

“Countless studies have shown strong connections to increased social engagement and improved demeanor when residents with dementia can spend time with young children," explained Ferris.

"There's a sense of purpose that comes with helping a child learn something new, even if a resident has less to offer than we think."

The senior residents in the dementia care unit were thrilled to welcome their visitors and connected with them immediately.  

"The residents were so excited about the students coming that they actually started clapping even before the students rounded the corner," remembered Lindemuth. "When we got there, the residents immediately shared a few of their favorite songs which the 3rd graders picked up on very quickly."

Finding Common Ground

Afterward, each of the students got to share their names and what they wanted to be when they grew up. Many of the residents there accomplished a lot in their fields and held careers that matched the dreams of some students. It was an eye-opening experience for the young students.  Third grade student Declan K. was particularly excited to meet a gentleman who worked on the original motors in Ford cars.

"One of them made the “brain” for a car," he reported. 

As part of the planning for the visit, students prepared to either read a favorite picture book or their own writings. Whether a student was reading above grade level or was being supported by a reading specialist, many students found the courage to read to the residents with a microphone.  

Students make snowflakes with residents

Students make snowflakes with residents.

Aside from the benefits to the residents, both Lindemuth and Ferris recognized the value of the visit to the Parkside students, particularly to further develop compassion and character.

"I feel very strongly that students should be pushed outside their comfort zone to try new things, but also to learn to build relationships with people who are different from them.  All of my students can use the practice of how to carry themselves, talk, and listen to people who are different from them."

Third grade student Tyler M. saw the purpose of the trip as a light to their new friends.

"It was really sweet. If they could remember older things, then they might remember us, that disability might clear their thoughts and then bring new thoughts in."

Building Compassion and Empathy

While some children may have grandparents they often see or be exposed to people with impairment, the opportunity for understanding and empathy is not always easily offered in everyday life for a third grade student.

"Exposing children to older adults can, of course, provide strong relationships and help develop stronger social skills," explains Ferris.

"But the important exposure is teaching compassion when someone acts in a way that a child may not understand. It's important for them to observe these situations and learn how to interact with someone who may be cognitively impaired. There's a lot for both to learn from each other."

While many of the students felt comfortable talking, asking questions, and even sharing a chair with their new friends, some students were a little shy and were allowed to interact at whatever level they felt comfortable with.  Visiting alongside classmates and friends helped with the new experience. 

The day ended with an art project to create snowflakes from coffee filters.  Students partnered in pairs and worked with residents who were capable of participating by coloring with markers and lightly brushing them with water for a beautiful result.   When the visit ended, the residents surprised the students with a small gift of a Valentine’s themed pencil and an eraser.

For many of the students, it was a day to remember and learn.

"I bet it made them feel happy," said Jameson.

"I liked sharing about ourselves because it made me feel good," said Jahnavi.

 "I liked getting to know about the residents," said Logan.

"I think my favorite part was just being with the residents," said Gianna.

From all the reports from Barclay Friends, they felt the same.