Young at Heart: Little Kids and Those of the Older Set Find Comfort in Each Other's Company at an Intergenerational Center

By Gayes, Patty | U.S. Catholic, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Young at Heart: Little Kids and Those of the Older Set Find Comfort in Each Other's Company at an Intergenerational Center


Gayes, Patty, U.S. Catholic


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.

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.

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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 Lonergaffs 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.

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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.

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Young at Heart: Little Kids and Those of the Older Set Find Comfort in Each Other's Company at an Intergenerational Center
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