Loneliness and isolation can be a big problem for seniors in Alaska. Many older people are often far away from family members, and kids are far away from their grandparents. In Sitka, the local Pioneer Home for seniors has found a solution for both problems: housing a local preschool right next door.
Tucked away behind the Sitka Pioneer Home, which provides state-run senior housing and care, is a cozy yellow building with an entryway filled with tiny jackets and boots. These old nurses’ quarters now house Mt. Edgecumbe Preschool.
Twice a week, the students visit residents. They read stories and sing songs to the elders. Together the young children and the older adults solve puzzles and play games, like balloon toss.
“There it went! Get it! Get it!” called Pioneer Home resident Anna Winters to a small, giggling child who ran after a red balloon.
“I love to see those kids come in every week,” Winters said, laughing. “It’s fun, and they give us a little craziness that we can take, too!”
A little craziness, and a lot of affection.
“Well, we’ve got some of them that hug, and I like huggers!” she said. “And they make you feel good. They make you feel like a human. They make you feel so good, inside and outside.”
Resident Galen Insteness said he appreciates story time because it helps him combat boredom. “They keep us entertained all the time. In fact, it’s kind of surprising how disciplined they are. Pretty sharp, I think.”
Pioneer Home Activities coordinator Skye Workman said the change she witnesses in residents when the children arrive is palpable. The interaction “brings a connectedness, builds relationships, builds joy and growth. The benefits from that are just so huge. It’s kind of immeasurable.”
It makes the residents feel more connected to the larger community as well, even if they don’t have any family in town. Research shows that increased socialization with can decrease loneliness and reduce the mental decline that often happens when living in a nursing facility.
Mt. Edgecumbe Preschool has existed for 30 years but has only been connected to the Pioneer Home since 2003. Preschool director Lori Whitmill said the shared time isn’t just important for the residents. Her students gain a lot from it too.
“Our main hope is that they feel comfortable and get a sense of appreciation and enjoyment for older people as competent, interesting, fun human beings,” she said. “So we can do our little part in combating ageism that’s so prevalent in our culture.”
Some research suggests kids who have early contact with elders are less likely to engage in stereotyping based on age. Whitmill said that many children in Sitka have grandparents in the Lower 48, which makes them a bit unfamiliar with the aging process.
“A lot of them do start our program feeling a little nervous, not sure if they want to do it,” she said. “But now, at this point, our kids are excited if it’s their turn to go, and disappointed if it’s not, so I think we’re making progress.”
She said that after a recent outing to the senior home, she overheard two of her students chatting. “One of the children said, ‘Did you notice how happy the grandmas and grandpas were?’ And another one said, ‘Yeah. I think they really like us.’”
Resident Anna Winters definitely likes them. After the balloon toss, she was sad to see the children go. “Come back again, please!” she called to the kids as they ran about yelling goodbye.
Winters didn’t need to worry. They are back every week.