Can Preschoolers Ease the Loneliness of the Elderly?

Earliest this week I got the chance to join my 4-year-old daughter at her preschool. Her teachers had asked all the parents to come in one morning to join in with the kids and help them with their play and crafts. And you know what? I had the BEST time.

We made paper puppets, put on a puppet show, studied some rocks with magnifying glasses, looked through the kids’ “journey books” of all they’ve done this year, and read a couple of stories. By the time it came to leave, I did not want to go. I was having that good of a time.

And apparently I’m not alone in this.

In Seattle, there’s an amazing preschool that also houses the elderly. On its website, the Intergenerational Learning Center describes itself as: “An award-winning child care program located within Providence Mount St. Vincent in West Seattle. All children are welcome.”

It goes on to state:

“Both planned and spontaneous activities and programs for children take place throughout the building and campus which is also home to more than 400 older adults. Five days a week, the children and residents come together in a variety of planned activities such as music, dancing, art, lunch, storytelling or just visiting. These activities result in mutual benefits for both generations.”

So much so that Evan Briggs is currently filming a documentary about the center. Present Perfect explores the very real experience of aging in America — both growing up and growing old. It powerfully captures the subtleties and complexities of the young children’s interactions with the elderly residents, while challenging us to consider what we’re doing — and what we’re not — to prepare future generations for what’s to come.

I defy anyone to watch the above clip of the film and not cry.

Studies have shown that 43% of older adults experience social isolation, which is linked to loneliness and depression as well as mental and physical decline. I must confess that the biggest fear I have in life (after the irrational fear that something will happen to my kids) is being lonely. I suffered from depression after having both my kids. The sudden jump from being at a busy social job and rushing around London, to being stuck indoors with a baby 24/7 was a big shock. I felt so isolated and lonely, and am certain this contributed to my postpartum depression.

So to see a program that unites the old and the young, where both get to benefit from such encounters, makes my heart sing. My 4-year-old daughter doesn’t see age, she sees people. How great to learn something from someone who has lived through so much and has decades of experience. If only we could all listen to the older generation more, perhaps we’d appreciate the world around us that much better.

Briggs explained that in making the film, she discovered how generationally segregated we have become — and it is our loss:

“One experience in particular occurred during a morning visit between the toddler classroom and several residents who had gathered to sing songs together. Everyone had just finished a rendition of ‘You Are My Sunshine’ when one of the residents began to share a memory he had of singing that very same song late at night on a bus full of soldiers while serving overseas during World War II. And though the kids were too young to understand his words, the fact that their presence provided a catalyst for his recollection just seemed to fit in a ‘circle of life’ kind of way.”


Kids live in the moment, just as those in their twilight years do. Four-year-olds aren’t caught up in a face-paced, frazzled, multitasking culture. They stop because a bee is buzzing by flowers or because they can see a plane overhead. Often I have to lift my head from my phone to appreciate the flower my daughter has picked or the painting she is engrossed in. She is totally engaged in the present and for the elderly, they are too — determined to enjoy every last minute they have on this planet.

The film asks some pretty big questions:

What value does a person have to others throughout their life?

Are we asking for the right contributions from each other?

How do we measure and define a successful life?’

But for me, the image that truly broke my heart was where the elderly woman was wearing a clown nose and the kids were interacting with her. They brought such light and life into what could be seen as an otherwise sterile environment.

Years ago, I visited my grandfather, Dr. George Cowie, at his nursing home. He was an extremely successful man and had even been awarded an Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.) by the Queen of England. Yet he was alone. His mind active, his body weak, he was living in a sea of old people who could barely speak or focus on him. He was lonely and his brilliant mind was wasting away. It upset me terribly. If he could have lived at Providence Mount St. Vincent and interacted with these beautiful children, I am certain he would have been a million times happier.

Children, often like the elderly, speak in plain terms. They have blunt opinions and honest thoughts. It is no wonder that this program has been beneficial to both the youngsters and the older folk. My only question is why aren’t we doing this more?

Now pass me the tissues, I want to watch the clip again.

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