Excited preschoolers crowded around men and women old enough to be their grandparents, ready to read.
But the people narrating picture books and acting out plotlines with their hands weren’t their relatives. Rather, they were senior citizens at the retirement home and assisted-living facility Legacy Lodge at Jackson Hole.
“I was looking for ways to branch out and try some things that would be really beneficial for our residents,” said Alenlia Woerner, director of life enrichment. “We play a lot of cards around here, but it doesn’t really bring the joy or the engagement I was looking for.”
Woener partnered with Children’s Learning Center teachers Michelle Rutecki and Heather Menke to offer a twice-a-month opportunity for generations to collide and unite over something that makes them both happy: reading. Children’s Learning Center is the area’s largest early education center serving kids ages birth through 5, and it just happens to have a location across the street from Legacy Lodge.
“It’s just wonderful to be able to spend time with older people in a sweet setting,” said Patti Boyd, the learning center’s executive director. “There’s nothing like reading together that is a really intimate, wonderful activity for children to do.”
Legacy Lodge cited information from Generations United, a nonprofit that works to improve the lives of children and older adults, that shows that intergenerational programs are beneficial for all participants. Children show improved reading scores compared with their peers when older adults are frequent volunteers in schools, and interacting with older adults helps kids develop a more positive attitude toward aging, according to the nonprofit.
The positive attitude certainly seemed present. The children cheered as they entered the retirement home and headed for their favorite elderly reader.
Bob Moeller, 79, could feel the excitement. Moeller, a bibliophile, enjoys joking with the kids, calling them “endearing.”
“I’m very happy to see the little tribe of people,” Moeller said. “I’m doing the same thing they’re doing. It connects me with the kids. They sure are cute.”
“Kids seek out who they remember,” teacher Tara Wunsch said. “And more and more are joining to read. I think everyone’s gotten more comfortable with each other. They’re basically running in the doors now.”
A racket signaled that the young readers had arrived.
“It always gets louder, in a good way, when the kids come,” said Lisa Delaney, director of admissions at Legacy Lodge.
Some residents expressively read to the children, asking questions about the books to engage the young students. Sometimes, a resident stumbled over a world, giving children a chance to take responsibility and show their learning. Boyd said some of their students’ families work a lot and aren’t always able to read to their children as much as they’d like.
“Reading and storytelling is a fundamental part of a child’s development,” Boyd said. “But it’s also a relationship, too.”
Other residents sat and watched from the sidelines, smiling softly to themselves.
“They just really enjoy the atmosphere,” Delaney said.
Helen Robertson, 85, and her dog, Daisy, were cozy in a corner.
“My eyes aren’t as good as they used to be,” Robertson said. That doesn’t keep her from interacting with the students, who love the white ball of fluff on her lap. The dog plays an important role in her life.
“When you get to be 85, you need to keep walking,” Robertson said. “She’s the best thing that ever happened to me. She keeps me walking.”
Dana Robertson, the executive director of the literacy research center and clinic at the University of Wyoming’s college of education, spoke about the benefits reading aloud can have for children. Reading with a parent, caregiver or caring adult begins a positive emotional response to text, he said.
“If it’s a positive experience, they’ll associate that with positive emotions and, of course, therefore likely increase their future engagement with seeing reading and text as an enjoyable activity,” Robertson said. “If it’s perceived by the child as something that the adult enjoys doing, there’s a good chance that the child will start to build some of those same feelings.”
As kids get a little older, Robertson said, an adult reading aloud to a child models “all sorts of early literacy behaviors, such as how we handle books.”
Adults might not think about the intangible benefits — how to hold a book, how to flip the pages, reading left to right — as much as the more tangible ones, like awareness of the sounds in a spoken language.
And when seniors take their reading a step further with gestures and questions, Robertson said, it builds early literacy skills, too.
“You’re providing opportunities for discussions and maybe even opportunities for forming opinions and thinking about why you feel a certain way,” Robertson said.
And don’t forget, Robertson said, about the positive impact on senior citizens’ literacy.
“The act of reading out loud, I think, is actually helping them to exercise and strengthen those memory pathways in the brain,” he said.
The experience builds more than just literacy. It builds an understanding of people different than you. Wunsch said that “facilitating interactions” is important to her.
“Our kids have a level of curiosity,” she said. Often her students will ask her about residents’ walkers or oxygen tanks.
“We tell them, ‘They’re just like your grandma or your grandpa,’” Wunsch said.
And it goes both ways. Some residents at Legacy Lodge have grandchildren nearby, others do not. Some kids have grandparents in town, others don’t.
“It’s important that the students have interactions with people who aren’t their grandparents,” Woerner said. “They aren’t scary. They should look at everybody like people.”
Reading with toddlers gives them a kind of interaction they might not normally have.
“What we’re really focusing on here with not only the seniors at Legacy Lodge but also the seniors within the Jackson community is making sure that people understand how much older generations have to give back,” Delaney said. “I think sometimes that gets lost in Jackson because we are such a youthful outdoorsy community.”
Some residents, Delaney noted, are “old Jackson pioneers who helped make this community what it is today,” leading to a particularly rich and historical experience for the younger members of the valley.
Putting social growth opportunities and reading improvement aside, it’s clear to any observer: The reading program makes people of all ages happy.
“I’ve been really gratified to see how small steps like this are just the beginning to make sure seniors feel like they are cherished,” Delaney said. “They have a sense of purpose for being here.”