“They’re a Godsend”: Nursing home residents get weekly visits from preschoolers

For nursing home residents, visits from preschoolers offer health benefits — including improved memory — and create lots of joy.

  • Four-year-old Mason Roberts — dressed as a character from Paw Patrol — delighted residents at Linda Manor Extended Care Facility in Leeds during a trick or treating event last Thursday. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Bonnie Robinson, 73, in her room at CareOne in Northampton, Oct. 26, 2018. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • Bonnie Robinson, at left, and Hettie Thompson, right, both look forward to weekly visits from the preschoolers. “They’re just so darn cure,” says Robinson. Staff PhotoS/Andy Castillo

  • Bonnie Robinson, 73, in her room at CareOne in Northampton, Oct. 26, 2018. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • Two-year-old Navaeh Santos’s grandmother brought her to Linda Manor’s event because she thinks it’s important for children to interact with elders. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • “It’s even fun for the people who are more passive observers,” says Care One activities director Deborah Dawson, of the visits from the preschoolers. Contributed photo

  • Seeing the preschoolers “makes my day go by a lot quicker. It’s much more enjoyable than sitting in your room reading,” says CareOne resident Bonnie Robinson, 73, a retired elementary school teacher’s aide. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • The children “love being the center of attention,” says Little Schoolhouse Family Daycare owner Candice Chouinard of the outing — which they call visiting the Grandmas and the Grandpas. Contributed photo

  • Hettie Thompson Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • Bonnie Robinson, 73, in her room at CareOne in Northampton. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

Published: 10/29/2018 5:13:43 PM

Every day before 6 a.m. two aides awaken Hettie Thompson, who lives at Northampton’s Care One facility, to shower and dress. Thompson reads a mystery or romance novel or until breakfast and watches Mass Appeal at 9 a.m.

Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. is the highlight of her week: a visit with preschoolers from the Little Schoolhouse Family Daycare in Northampton.

“They laugh and twist, the little girls, especially,” said Thompson, 87. “They’re cute.”

The preschoolers’ weekly visit is more than a sweet gesture. Children can have a profound and lasting impact on elders, triggering long-forgotten memories, says Melissa Haqq, an occupational therapist at Care One. It’s particularly beneficial for those with dementia or other memory loss challenges.

“When an elderly adult interacts with a child — playing or singing songs — it taps into their long-term memory centers,”  Haqq said. “It’s literally like fog being cleared from a windshield, and they’re able to see clearly for a few minutes. It’s pretty beautiful.”

Of all the activities Haqq helps organize, she says the preschoolers’ weekly visits — which Little Schoolhouse calls “visiting the Grandmas and the Grandpas” — are always well attended.

Jim Haesaert, 77, a resident at the home, says seeing the children reminds him what it was like to be their age.

“They’re a Godsend,” Haeseart said.

The visits improve the quality of life for many residents like Haesart and Thompson, some of whom aren’t interested in other activities, Haqq says. And the visits have a positive ripple effect on other areas of their health in addition to a better long-term memory.

For example, Haqq says that getting out of bed and walking around can help improve residents’ blood pressure and balance, strengthen postural muscles, and prevent pressure ulcers that people get from lying down for long periods of time.

“Residents who are typically downcast with very limited communication and time out of bed, for that half an hour or 45 minute interval, you see them smiling and communicating,” she said. That, in turn, can stave off isolation, which might lead to more depression or anxiety, she says.

“It's so easy to make someone’s day special. It doesn’t have to be this grand thing. It’s so easy to do and it’s really important,” Haqq said.

When they visit, the children don’t have a strict agenda. They usually play games like basketball and other tossing activities, sing songs, dance and enjoy a snack together, says Candice Chouinard, owner and director of Little Schoolhouse Family Daycare.

“For the children it’s a good opportunity for them to bond with older folks. A lot of the kids don’t have grandparents in their lives locally,” Chouinard said. “During the visits, they really enjoy themselves. They love being the center of attention.”

And while many of the residents interact directly with the preschoolers, Deborah Dawson, activities director at Care One, says, “It’s even fun for the people who are more passive observers. You can see the benefits.”

Bringing together children and elders isn’t exclusive to Care One. At Linda Manor in Leeds recently, children came to trick or treat with the residents.

“It’s wonderful to see the kids,” said Ilene Hirschberg. She was sitting at a table watching 4-year-old Mason Roberts of Goshen, who was dressed as a Paw Patrol character, and Mason’s 6-year-old brother Chase Roberts, who was dressed as a werewolf.

At another table nearby, Jennifer Brinson was there with her 2-year-old granddaughter Navaeh Santos, who was also dressed as a Paw Patrol character.

“My daughter works here, and she told us about the trick or treating,” Brinson said. “It’s important for children to see (elders).”

By gathering people of different age groups and ethnic backgrounds in the same room — from toddlers to elders in their late-90s — Haqq says a rich cultural environment is created that encourages connection between groups that might not otherwise interact.

“There’s so much more we have in common. And even if we’re all so different, we can still enjoy the same activity together,” she said.

For Bonnie Robinson, 73, who has been a resident at Care One for a few years, seeing children reminds her of her many nieces and nephews.

Inside her room, Robinson lights up when she points out a few framed pictures of her nieces and nephews. Pinned to a corkboard is a children’s drawing inscribed to “Aunt Bonnie.”

Robinson worked as a teacher’s aide at Hardwick Elementary School and remembers what it was like in the school around Halloween.

“The kids would get all hyped up. They were looking forward to Halloween, and after, they were all hyped up on all the candy they’d just eaten,” she said. Robinson says she loves kids. And even though her family often visits, she doesn’t see children as much as she used to. 

“I miss them,” she said. Seeing the preschoolers “makes my day go by a lot quicker. It’s much more enjoyable than sitting in your room reading. They’re just so darn cute.”

Andy Castillo can be reached at acastillo@gazettenet.com.

How to connect

If you’re bringing kids to trick or treat at businesses along Main Street in Northampton, stop by the Senior Center on Conz Street from 3 to 5 p.m to collect additional goodies from seniors.

In South Hadley, from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Halloween night, the Council on Aging will give out candy at the Senior Center at 45 Dayton St. followed by a classic horror movie until 7 p.m.

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