A group of about a dozen senior citizens sat Tuesday in a room in the Piedmont Agency on Aging, arranging pink and red M&Ms on colorful bingo cards and talking to one another.
They cracked jokes and told stories as they sat, clearly enjoying each others’ company.
But when a group of 4- and 5-year-olds filed into the room, the energy among the seniors shot up instantly. Molly Harts, 88, turned in her chair to lead them in a song.
“The children sing and they bring gifts that they made,” Harts said. “I have a folder and I don’t throw anything out. I have all the children’s gifts over years because I just can’t discard them.”
When the song was over, each child was paired with one of the seniors. The children sat in the seniors’ laps or leaned on their shoulders and, together, they began filling out the bingo cards.
The seniors and children are part of the agency’s Lifetime Discoveries program, an intergenerational day care.
Susan Orck, the programs director, said the day care brightens the lives of the seniors who participate and gives the children a chance to learn from the seniors.
“For the children, it’s great for them to be exposed to more diversity in age groups and just learn to communicate with a different generation,” Orck said. “It teaches them empathy, patience and how to follow directions in different environments.”
Lifetime Discoveries is a full-time day care for children, Orck said, and all profits go towards other agency programs such as Meals on Wheels.
The program, which started in 2000, brings the seniors together with a group of children ages of 2-4 years old most Tuesdays for activities such as gardening and dancing, but Orck said they typically cross paths much more than that.
“Our 1-year-olds might be riding the little buggies in the lobby and the seniors will come through, so there are random bouts of interaction throughout the day,” she said.
Multiple studies — such as a 2002 report from Generations United and a 2013 study by BMC Geriatrics — have shown improved physical and mental health in seniors who interact regularly with young children.
The Generations United report also indicated children who have consistent interactions with older adults have “enhanced social skills, lower levels of aggressive behavior, decreased drug use, increased stability and improved academic performance,” as they get older.
Orck said she’s seen the impact the program has on the seniors and children first hand.
“The seniors obviously love it because they get a kick out of it,” she said. “When the kids say something funny or do something funny, it’s really entertaining so they just enjoy it across the board. But the parents also enjoy the learning it brings to their children. They’ll make make them grandparents cards and take them down there and they did a play for them one time and do little skits for them. So the parents appreciate seeing their children giving back to an older age group.”
Al Cohen, 83, who’s been attending the program for about four years, said he looks forward to seeing the children on Tuesdays.
“Here you can get a hug and you can give a hug,” he said. “I think that’s so important to the children to do that.”
Cohen said the program gives him a chance to interact with people his own age, as well as children.
“It’s not just what the kids get out of it, because I think we get just as much if not more than the kids get out of it,” he said. “Especially someone like me, because I was always working all the time and I have two daughters that grew up and I missed them growing up. But now I have these little ones and I watch them grow up.”
Contact staff writer Conor Hughes at 864-943-2511 or on Twitter @IJConorHughes.