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Interaction benefits toddlers and elderly alike

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Special To The Japan Times

Bridging the generation gap is nowhere more evident than in the successful merging of two institutions in Japan and in the United States that are thought to be tasked with diametric missions. The partnership between preschools and nursing homes, which is being closely watched by specialists in both fields, has positive implications for both rapidly aging countries.

When Shimada Masaharu merged a nursery school and home for the aged in Edogawa Ward, Tokyo, in 1976, he had no idea that what he had begun would attract worldwide attention. Although Kotoen was originally just another nursery school, during a renovation it was coupled with a senior center. By 1998, the concept had spread to include 16 other similar facilities, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

The benefits soon became apparent. Seniors found a solution to the loneliness and boredom that characterized so many nursing centers. According to a study in 2013, seniors began smiling and conversing more among themselves. Moreover, they exhibited delayed mental decline, lower blood pressure and reduced risk of disease and death compared with seniors in nonparticipating facilities.

But the program is not a one-way street by any means. Toddlers developed respect and empathy for the elderly, which enhanced their social and personal development. For children who live far away from the homes of their grandparents, the arrangement exposed them to a segment of society that they otherwise would not know except as an abstraction.

Although the two groups get together on a regular basis, they also interact on traditional holidays such as Children’s Day, Tanabata, Setsubun and the Hina Matsuri doll festival. The highlight is an annual overnight summer camp trip to a beach in Chiba.

The partnership made its way to the U.S., with similar positive outcomes. In 1991, Providence Mount St. Vincent established the Intergenerational Learning Center in Seattle, where six days a week residents and staff open the 28,000-sq.-meter to 125 children up to 5 years of age.

Teachers take their students to the residential floors to visit elders from 20 minutes for infants to 60 minutes for older children. In a departure from the obsession with college that characterizes so many parents elsewhere, those who sign up see a greater payoff in the intergenerational interaction.

Part of the effectiveness of the program is that teachers are now required to have at least 15 college-credit hours in early childhood education and complete annual senior-care training. This move toward professionalism is overdue in a field where for too long teachers had little formal training. Impressed with the Intergenerational Learning Center, filmmaker Evan Briggs plans to release a documentary titled “Present Perfect” in 2017.

At a time when people are living longer than ever, the issue of aging is gaining urgency in Japan and the U.S. Geriatricians in particular are becoming increasingly interested in new ways of making the final years of life more fulfilling. When they can achieve that goal, while at the same time help those just beginning theirs develop socially and emotionally, they will have done an invaluable service to society.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S.