Kindergarten in a nursing home brings young and old happily togetherNine months ago nobody knew for sure what would happen inside Windsor Place when it became home to a class of Coffeyville kindergartners. Never before had a Kansas school or nursing home tried this, tried merging the old and young in a way for each to learn from the other.
By: Laura Bauer, McClatchy Newspapers
COFFEYVILLE, Kan. — Nine months ago nobody knew for sure what would happen inside Windsor Place when it became home to a class of Coffeyville kindergartners. Never before had a Kansas school or nursing home tried this, tried merging the old and young in a way for each to learn from the other.
Sure, organizers hoped some good things would happen. But as they watched the class of 21 students in their white, paper graduation caps this week, they said they didn’t expect this. Not in just one year.
“The synergy between the two has exceeded all of our expectations,” said Monte Coffman, executive director of Windsor House, who pushed for the age-to-age program, which will get a new class of kindergartners in August.
They couldn’t have known late last summer the transformations, in the young and old, they would see through the seasons.
Take Diane Jones, 84. She has early-stage dementia and would often just stay in her room, away from the other residents. Now she sits with the children every day and dresses in clothes she thinks the children will like, shirts with pictures of Betty Boop on them or furry dogs.
The kindergartners asked Grandma Diane, a class favorite, to sing with them during their graduation program.
And the kids, they’ve learned compassion and kindness, how to be patient as they wait behind someone in a wheelchair or using a walker. At home they talk about how the very young and old are alike and how grandma or grandpa so and so lived when they were young.
They’ve also become strong readers, blossoming from the everyday praise and guidance from the seniors.
“We knew it would be beneficial for our kids,” said teacher Sherri Chittum. “But we didn’t know how much.”
A little boy who has trouble communicating with people has connected with one of the grandmas. He high fives her in the hall. Talks to her, even looks into her eyes as he’s doing it.
“If you look at our children, they’re just different,” said Dawn Crow, whose daughter Lily went to see the seniors during Christmas break because she thought they’d be lonely. “I think my child has learned so much more than her 123s and ABCs. ... Every day we send our kids here, we feel like we’ve been given a gift.”
Children fill a void
Those who live at Windsor Place say they are the ones who have been given the gift.
Marian Nelson never had grandchildren of her own. She lost her only two sons in car crashes. Freddie died in 1980 when he was 23. Eddie was killed seven years later. He was 37. Her husband William died a few years ago.
“Sometimes I feel lost,” the 87-year-old said, sitting in a puffy chair waiting to read with the children. “I would really be lost if it weren’t for this program. These kids have filled a void in me.”
As if right on cue, little Matthew Redden heads right for Grandma Marian with a list of words he’ll need to know next year in first grade at the elementary school. He says he likes reading with her.
As Matthew puts it: “If I don’t know a word, she helps me stretch it out.”
When the staff at the nursing facility first told residents about the new kindergarten class and how they needed volunteers to work with them, Marian wasn’t so sure. But as she watched them create the new classroom last summer, with bright colors and cubby holes, she figured, why not?
Throughout the school year she’s been a regular reader every morning. And when she was hospitalized recently with a stroke, Grandma Marian remembers waking up half-dazed looking for the children.
She wanted to be with them so much she said she got better so she could.
And that’s something Jacque Rooks, the facility’s quality of life director, has seen in residents throughout Windsor Place. The thought of seeing the kids gives some a reason to get up in the morning.
“A resident told me one day, ‘Something to live for, that’s what the children gave to us,” Rooks said. “Kindergarteners have a magic medicine we can’t buy.”
At the beginning of the school year, the seniors would have to read to the children. Now the kindergartners read to them.
During exercise time, it was initially the kids who did all the moving. Raising their arms, reaching for their toes.
Now they have company, said Kristy Steers, the facility’s activities director.
“They’ll have grimaces on their faces, but they do anything they can to lift their arms,” Steers said. “They want to do what their kids are doing.”
Wake up Grandpa
That’s where Grandpa Raymond Cranor comes in.
Most days at Windsor Place the retired rancher in his early 90s would sit sleeping in his chair, hardly moving and unresponsive, other than the times he would holler out. When he was awake, he pretty much kept his eyes closed.
Until one morning when he heard the kids singing a good morning song.
Chittum saw his eyes open, his face light up.
“Grandpa Raymond, is there a song you would like us to sing?” she asked.
And this is when staff members say the magic happened.
“Can you sing ‘You Are My sunshine?’” Grandpa Raymond piped up.
And as if they were a wedding band honoring a request, the kindergarteners broke into song.
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine ...”
“He sang the whole song with them, word for word,” Rooks said. “We didn’t even know he had it in him.”
Adds Chittum: “It was a song he knew, one he probably used to sing. He connected with the children.”
Now, most mornings when he hears the children come through, Grandpa Raymond asks someone to turn his chair so he can watch them.
One day, he told a staffer he needed a bucket of apples. In his day, that was one of the biggest treats you could give a kid. And he wanted to give each kindergartner one.
Stories like Grandpa Raymond’s have prompted other towns and states to look at the program and consider implementing it themselves. A county in Alaska is hoping to open an age-to-age learning class inside a nursing home there in fall 2010.
Michelle Foreman, a board member of the Chugiak senior center in Eagle River, Alaska, said when she visited Windsor Place she cried nearly half the time she was there.
“One of the things we have not done right in our society is we have not sent the right message to our senior population,” Foreman said. “That we need you, you are valuable, you have things that need to be passed on to our next generation.
“I told Monte, we want to run with his vision.”
Measure of success
This summer, the Coffeyville facility will find out what strides have been made. Gayle Doll, director of the Center on Aging at Kansas State University, plans to measure what difference the children being at Windsor Place has made in the residents working with them.
Regardless of the results, the stories tell the success, she said.
“They have more than enough information to keep them going and get others interested in this,” Doll said. “I think it’s been great for both parties, old and young.”
As Doll studies the results, staff at Windsor Place know the residents will be missing the kindergartners. Rooks has activities planned, including having other young people come into the facility.
Residents have their own plans.
Especially Grandma Diane. She’s ready for a slew of pen pals and told the kids so this week.
“When you guys graduate, you can write me a letter and tell me what you’re doing,” Grandma Diane said to a couple of little girls. “I’ll write you back and tell you what I’m doing.
“Won’t that be fun?”
The two girls shake their heads yes in a dramatic up and down motion. Then it’s on to another book.
With their Grandma Diane.