The Sandwich Generation Solution: Day Care for Kids and Seniors

Finding day care for children and parents under one roof.

three generations

It's 6 am. The alarm goes off, and you're busy getting yourself, your 2-year-old child and your 70-year-old mother ready for the day. After a hectic breakfast, a scramble to get all of you dressed and equipped, you manage to get everyone in the car and dropped off at day care before racing off to work, only to repeat the same routine at the end of the day.

You're tired and stressed. You are one of the 10 to 16 million Americans in the Sandwich Generation.

As the baby boom generation ages and the next generation waits until their late 30s to start a family, more and more new parents find themselves sandwiched between the pressures of work and the care (and costs) of their young children and their aging parents.

But a growing trend in day care facilities may alleviate some of this stress even while improving the quality of day care for both children and older adults: intergenerational day care. These facilities house adult care programs as well as child-care programs in one center, often combining activities for both sets of clients throughout the day. The number of these innovative programs is on the rise. In December 2005, the "Los Angeles Times" reported that more than 500 intergenerational day care facilities had opened up around the country, more than double what was available just 10 years earlier.

Mutual Benefits

Intergenerational care is not only a convenient option for those caring for both parent and child, it actually provides unique benefits unavailable in traditional day care.

Benefits for Elders

Generations United, a Washington D. C.-based advocacy group for intergenerational care, reported in July 2007 that adults enrolled in such programs have enhanced socialization opportunities and a greater sense of engagement in their communities. They have better emotional and mental health as well as stronger physical health than their counterparts in more traditional day care facilities. Julianne Joerres, marketing associate at the St. Ann Center for Adult and Child Day Care in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, elaborated on this trend. She said that when her adult clients served as mentors and teachers to the children they gained "a sense of purpose and added dignity to their lives."

Benefits for Children

Children, too, benefit greatly from increased positive interaction with older adults. In the same July 2007 study on intergenerational care, Generations United noted that children involved in intergenerational programming had improved academic performance, a more positive attitude to aging and were more socially and personally mature than their peers.

Judy Hamilton is the senior program director at One Generation an intergenerational day care facility in Van Nuys, California. She also speaks of the many benefits her children receive from interaction with "the neighbors," or the older clients. Children receive more one-on-one attention. The toddlers enjoy sitting on the lap of one of the neighbors and having a book read to them before napping. The 2-year-olds also get neighbor lunch partners who offer help and conversation during the meal. The elder clients also help out in the infant room holding and rocking the babies individually -- an unhurried time that is not often possible in traditional child care facilities. In fact, when her own son came to the center for a week over the winter school break, he told her: "I wish I had neighbors at my school!"

Hamilton also cites several studies out of Virginia Tech and Penn State that found children in intergenerational programming had a stronger ability to handle delayed gratification, a reduced bias against the elderly and a greater sensitivity to persons with disabilities.

Safety Concerns

As in any day care program, safety concerns about the health of both the children and elderly need to be addressed. Hamilton also spoke of several myths that many people hold about intergenerational programs that speak to some worries people may have. First, people often ask her if the sick children endanger the older clients' health. "Like in all day care, the health policy applies," she counters. When a child or elderly client is sick, they are not allowed to attend and would not be in contact with each other. Further, each morning they have "wellness checks" where each child is examined to ensure that they are indeed healthy. If they seem hot or glassy-eyed, their temperature is taken and they are sent to the sick waiting room until their parents arrive to take them home.

Further, parents often worry about how their children will react if one of the older clients dies. However, in more than 10 years of working in intergenerational care, Hamilton has never had an older client die -- although parents or even children have suddenly passed away. Intergenerational care is not hospice and typically the older clients are not near death. Rather, they simply cannot be left alone for a variety of reasons, including Alzheimer?s or physical disabilities, or they prefer not to spend the day alone for social reasons. For instance, the neighbors that work in the infant room are the most highly functioning of the elderly clientele. Many often attend the day care program not for medical or therapeutic reasons, but social ones as they prefer to spend the day with other people in the community. Additionally, only two to three neighbors go into the infant room at a time accompanied by an aide. With the two teachers always present in the infant room, this provides a one-on-one ratio of worker to neighbor/infant pair.

Parents often wonder what kind of background checks are done on the elderly clients. Hamilton allays these fears by noting that at no time are any of the children left alone with another client. All clients, elderly or otherwise, are always supervised by trained, professional staff members who have undergone early-childhood and geriatric training, as well as background checks. The highly-trained staff ensure that both ?the neighbor? and the children interact in safe, healthy and mutually beneficially ways.

Best Practices

However, not all intergenerational programming is equal. Sonia Miner Salari, sociology professor at the University of Utah, notes that there is a danger in infantilizing older adults when intergenerational programs are not appropriately structured. As she concluded in a 2002 paper, "[Adult] clients should be provided with mentoring roles, adult status, and autonomy, and the two generations should not be treated as status equals."

In evaluating any intergenerational programming, she advises, make sure that there is a choice of participation for the adults, that children and adults have separate spaces in which to retreat during the day, and that the adults are respected and tapped for their experience and wisdom.

One Generation's programming exemplifies these best practices. The facility houses separate but adjoined buildings for the child care and adult day care services. For adults who choose to participate, there are several opportunities throughout the week to interact with the children. In each activity, the adult is paired with a child to serve as a mentor and teacher. Some of the more popular programs include cooking classes, nature walks, and music and movement classes.

St Ann's Center also demonstrates some innovative ways to program developmentally appropriate intergenerational activities. The center?s most popular activities include musical therapy and water sports. They also have a rock-a-bye baby program, as well as cooking, gardening and woodworking classes where older clients share their experience and wisdom to help guide and care for the children. The center?s intergenerational programs have seen such great success that they have created a best practice manual for other facilities interested in developing a similar program.

The benefits for people in the "Sandwich Generation" are enormous. The ease of having one facility that provides quality day care to both a parent and child can reduce stress and time management issues. It also reduces financial stress, as many intergenerational care facilities offer discounts to family members. Perhaps more important, intergenerational care provides an opportunity for the grandparent and grandchild to interact more often and mutually benefit from a closer personal relationship.

To find out more about intergenerational day care facilities, or to find one in your area, check out Generations United.

Megan Clarke juggles a husband, four children and a freelance journalism career in Oak Park, IL. Her work can be seen on Care.com, BabyZone.com and USCatholic.org.

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