Better together

A need to connect with different age groups is woven into our genes

by Diana Schoberg photography by Frank Ishman

It’s nearly Valentine’s Day. Seated around a table are five older adults and four children under age four, the decades between them bridged by the heart-filled sheets they’re coloring together. One boy holds up his creation. “Look at mine!” he says. Everyone at the table claps, and Bob Husslein offers some grandfatherly words of encouragement: “In the lines, too!” One by one, the kids show off their artwork. “I can’t believe you did that all by yourself,” Husslein says to a little girl. “Are you going to give it to your mommy?”

The art room at St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care on Milwaukee’s south side is a homey hodgepodge of donated craft supplies: cups of paintbrushes, stacks of colored paper, and bins of beads organized by color. The room is open to participants in the center’s adult care program who want to do crafts, and when the children who attend day care join them, the room buzzes with energy. “In the time I’ve been volunteering here, I can see the difference in how they feel and work with each other,” Husslein says.

“I help them paint if they need help with painting,” says George Murray, one of 200 adults who take part in the center’s program. “Some of them get frustrated and upset. You just have to calm them down. You have to show them they matter to somebody. They look up to an older person.” And, he adds, the benefits go both ways: “They show you stuff you don’t know. Some of these kids are pretty smart.”

“I wanted it to be colorful and nonclinical, a place where they could play together and dance together.”

Among the adults coloring valentines is Edna Lonergan. She’s a member of the Rotary Club of Milwaukee, a Catholic nun, and the founder of St. Ann Center, which brings together young and old to spend their days under one roof. On one side of the center, the children’s day care is furnished with pint-size tables and chairs and filled with artwork, including a mural of fairies. On the other side, adults — frail elderly people as well as adults of all ages with disabilities — socialize, take part in activities, and receive therapy. In between, a sunlit atrium brims with cacti, ferns, and palm trees (a staff massage therapist doubles as the gardener). A fireplace burns cheerfully at the entrance, and the walls are painted to evoke a European village. “I wanted it to be colorful and nonclinical,” Lonergan says, “a place where they could play together and dance together.”

Lonergan is a gerontologist by training. In 1983, she opened an adult day center in the basement of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi convent in Milwaukee. As the program grew, she realized that many members of her staff were single mothers whose children often needed a place to go when they weren’t in school. “So I said, ‘Why not bring them?’ And magic happened. The adults wanted to do things with the kids. They wanted to have tea parties and teach them how to fish,” she says. “They had a sense of purpose.”

As Lonergan observed the camaraderie between the groups, she began looking for other places that provided intergenerational care. She saw things like children singing for adults at a nursing home, but never found a program that matched the bonding she was witnessing. So she decided to create something new. St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care opened in 1999.

Since then, Lonergan’s idea of an intergenerational model of care has been lauded by the White House, presented to the United Nations, and featured in the New York Times. “A lot of people say to me, ‘You think outside of the box,’ ” she says. “I really don’t. I bring other people’s boxes into mine.”

  • 43.00%

    American adults over 60 who feel lonely

  • 1.00 in 5

    Americans who live in multigenerational households

  • 85.00%

    Americans who would prefer an intergenerational setting if they needed care services