FIVE elderly women and three preschool children sit around a rectangular art table, supplied with a carton of hard-boiled eggs and bowls of red, blue, and yellow vinegar-scented dye. An onlooker might think the activity is egg coloring, but here at the Stride Rite Intergenerational Day Care Center, the project is ``togetherness.''
``That will be a nice egg that you can take home to Mummy,'' says one 80-year-old woman to a three-year-old boy sitting next to her. ``You're such a good painter.''
Getting children and older people to interact and form friendships is a goal of this unusual day-care center, owned and operated by the Stride Rite Corporation, retailer of children's and adult footwear. Here the two age groups come and go every day, eat meals together, take walks, share in craft activities, and, staff members hope, feel enriched by each other's presence.
The center, which serves the local community as well as company employees, opened over a year ago amid a deluge of media attention.
Since then, staff members have learned not-so-easy lessons about how to encourage natural, not forced, interaction among the children and elders. In addition, a cross-generational curriculum is slowly emerging, they say, that breaks new ground in teaching techniques.
At the outset, ``We didn't really know what would happen,'' says teacher Barbara Courtney.
Company officials say they hope the center will become a model for other corporations seeking to address employees' growing need for both child care and elder care.
``The need for elder care is really going to reach crisis proportions in the next few years,'' says Karen Leibold, director of work and family programs for Stride Rite. According to the National Council on Aging Inc., the number of older Americans has increased by 18 percent, to 4.7 million, since 1980, compared with an increase of 7 percent for the under-65 population.
Workers with both aging, disabled parents, and small children - labeled ``the sandwich generation'' - will be looking to employers for care assistance in both areas, says Ms. Leibold.
Though Stride Rite is considered a pioneer in corporate day-care - their first on-site center opened 20 years ago - staff members admit they had to start ``cold'' in the area of intergenerational care - a subject just being broached in early-childhood education and health-care circles.
The elders, mostly aged 70 to 90, are carefully screened before being enrolled. No personal care is given, so all of them are ambulatory and considered ``highly functional,'' says Leibold.
``Many of them live alone but have children nearby, and they need a little extra support,'' comments Pamela Schmidt, intergenerational coordinator at the center. For $28 a day, elders can come once a week or every day, if they wish. Some are dropped off in the morning by their grown children who are on their way to work. The center has 16 elders so far, with slots for 24. Only one of them has a relative that works for Stride Rite.
``When I came here I just loved it and the people were wonderful,'' says Eva DaRosa, a widow who has two grown children and several grandchildren. ``I think it's better than being by yourself at home.''
An ongoing challenge for the preschool teachers and the elder-care staff is developing a curriculum enjoyable to the children and yet dignified and enriching for the adults. (Seniors can retreat anytime to ``the porch,'' a quiet, window-filled living room with handsome furnishings, books, and newspapers.)
The elders ``don't want to fingerpaint,'' says Mrs. Schmidt. Successful projects, she says, have been learning Japanese brush painting, growing paper-white narcissuses in pots, and building terrariums out of plastic soda bottles. In addition to non-ageist, the curriculum attempts to be non-sexist and multicultural.
At first, the staff noticed a sense of competition developing between the adults and the kids as to who could make ``the best'' drawing or object. ``There wasn't enough meaningful contact because everyone was so concerned with finishing their product,'' says Schmidt. The staff now works to emphasize the process, being together, and having fun, rather than what the finished products look like, she says.
While all of the elders appear to enjoy being around the children, the center is not for everyone. One elderly gentleman several months ago tended to lose his temper around the kids and yell at them for being noisy, says Schmidt. He did not return.
Once the elders and children took a field trip to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts - an excursion that turned out to be ``a disaster,'' confesses Schmidt. The kids walked faster than the elders, and the two groups didn't mingle.
``We learned that large groups don't create intimacy,'' says Schmidt. ``If we have three kids and four elders, a smaller ratio, it gives the kids a lot more attention, which they bask in.''
The teachers have found that physical contact is a good way to create a relaxed atmosphere conducive to communication. The children often sit on elders' laps to read books, or hold their hands while going for walks. One woman gives rides to some of the kids as she sits in her wheelchair.
``By bringing them together, we're creating relationships that can transcend stereotypes'' about aging, says Leibold. The children and elders ``can become advocates for each other.''