"I'm lost without 'em," Walter Kelley, 81, says. "Every morning the children come up and say, 'Hi, Gramps!' They make my day. I know each one individually. And I couldn't pick one over another. I really love 'em all."
Mr. Kelley lives in the Wright County Retirement Center in Buffalo, Minn., just 40 miles west of Minneapolis. For several years, his days at the center were mostly routine. But 18 months ago the Generations Day Care Center opened its doors on the ground floor of his nursing home, and Mr. Kelley's life hasn't been the same since.
Walter Kelley's relationship with the children, though not biological, has as much love as a real grandfather's. and that love is returned fiftyfold through the center's unusual program.
In September 1979 John Thompson, the young administrator of the center, came up with a starting idea -- open a day-care center in the nursing home.For years he had watched from his large picture window across from the park as school buses unloaded gaggles of children for their annual excursion to the retirement home. It was a chance for young and old to meet each other and relate for a day. But John Thompson wasn't satisfied with one day. He wanted that sharing and touching to happen every day.
"In a typical encounter, the children would be brought in for a program. The teachers would shoo them around and tell them to be careful," Mr. Thompson says. "The children would look around in awe. They'd never seen so many gray- haired people and wheelchairs. They were apprehensive and never got to know anybody. And the residents would want to touch. . . . But it was hard to do that. Pretty soon they'd all pile on the bus and leave and everything would be quiet.
"I felt we were not allowing the residents to develop relationships," Mr. Thompson continues. "We were caught in the same kind of syndrome where we were not letting the residents do anything for themselves."
Coincidentally, Buffalo's only day-care center was closing down at that time. The community need was certainly there, as was a need of nursing home employees to have their children near them. It also appeared that no major remodeling would be necessary to add day-care facilities. Armed with those facts, John Thompson went to the board of directors. Six months later, with the board's skeptical approval, his idea became an active program.
"Some of our concerns revolved around what would happen if young children were exposed to chronic illness or maybe mental confusion on a daily basis. Well, after we opened, we quickly found out that measuring people's value by their mental and physical perfectness was developed very nicely by us, but not by children. They're curious about disability," Mr. Thompson says. "But their honesty and value systems have not yet developed to the point that they judge a person's value on the basis of whether they are young or old."
Mr. Thompson relates a case in point that occurred when a small child wandered into a resident's room and discovered its legless occupant in a wheelchair. "He walked right up to him and said, 'Hey, where are your legs?' The old man answered simply, 'They didn't work any more so the doctor took them off.' The child said, 'Oh.' Well, he still had a lap so the child asked if he could have a ride to the room where they were making popcorn. The guy picked him up, put him in his lap, and off they went. It didn't make any difference if he had legs or not. So we found out that having a day-care center in this kind of atmosphere was mutually beneficial."
The benefits to old and young begin early in the morning when the first day-care pupils arrive, an occurrence that does not go by unnoticed. Residents' rooms are just across the hall, and soon after the children settle in, it's time to go visiting. Led through the halls by aides, the energetic toddlers make their morning rounds, chatting nonsense to the ladies and planting cracker-crumb kisses on the whiskered cheeks of 90-plus gentlemen. Eagerly, residents reach out to grab a youngster's chubby hand. Sometimes they even manage to coax one up on a lap for a short ride in a wheelchair.
Paulette Klatt, director of the day-care center, says this "spontaneous interaction" is the best. "The toddlers are not inhibited at all. They'll walk up to someone and give them a kiss or say hi." They're much more outgoing by being in this type of environment, she says.
Reaction from parents using the center has been equally positive. Donna Kind has taken her daughter Kristina to the center since it opened. "I think it's beautiful," Mrs. Kind says. "Kristina's real grandfather is at the center, and she gets to see him every day. Because I'm a working parent, Kristina didn't know what an extended family was all about. Now she does. She also accepts both physical and mental disabilities much better than any adult I know," Mrs. Kind says. "It's a very good learning situation."
Interaction at the center is encouraged and often planned. Activities include baking, card bingo, making popcorn, sing- a-longs, bowling with plastic pins, and exercise twice a week.
"It's much easier to get the residents to exercise when the children are there," says Martha Brophy, recreational therapist. "We tried to get a program started without the kids, but it was a problem. Now it's fun. The kids have so much enthusiasm and really set the people going."
Most of the daily activities go better with children, it seems.Every opportunity is provided for old and young to touch as often as possible. Both residents and children enjoy joint field trips to the zoo or circus several times a year, and frequent outings to the park are the highlight of many summer days. But for those who can't go out, there's a special thrill indoors, looking at the babies.
"It's especially fun when the infants go through the halls in the porta-cribs ," Paulette Klatt says. "All the residents come to their doors to see and touch the babies. Some of them even come down to the nursery later to feed them their bottles."
John Thompson thinks it's this kind of interaction and family type of reaction that makes this nursing home more like real life."It shows both the positive and the negative. And we've come to believe that even some of the negative things . . . are positive."
On the positive side is a new bonding that takes place between staff person and resident. When that happens, residents, staff, and their children become one large extended family. Residents who saw staff infants come in at six weeks now watch them at 18 months -- walking, talking, and calling them Gramps. Currently, staff children make up about one- half of the full-time day-care enrollment, a statistic Mr. Thompson believes could be making a difference in employee turnover, which went from 46 percent two years ago to a current 23 percent.
Although tunrover is dropping, enrollment in the day-care center is not. Licensed to take 31 children, the nonprofit center now carries 50 (not all come with the same regularity). There has been a two-page waiting list since the center was two months old. Those fortunate enough to get in must be between the ages of six weeks and 12 years. Registration is $10, and a full week's tuition is $41.25. The center, which operates solely from funds provided by its users, is open 12 months a year, a fact that pleases resident Walter Kelley.
"I like to be amongst 'em, play little tricks on 'em," he says. "It's just like being a family. If those children aren't around, I'm lost. I was gone to the hospital for seven weeks, and I really missed them. After I got back, first thing you know, they were on my knee or coming around to hit my hand (Give me five, Grandpa')." Mr. Kelley chuckles and then adds thoughtfully, "It makes you feel so good to have the children around."