It’s 9:30 A.M. on a late-October Monday at the St. Ann Center’s Bucyrus campus. In defiance of the bleak autumn skies, falling leaves, and last night’s Packers’ loss, the mood is upbeat here at this sprawling, recently built facility on Milwaukee’s northwest side. An energetic gaggle of 2-year-olds is making its way across the building’s courtyard, heading to join another group of St. Ann day-care attendees. It promises to be a morning of fellowship and fun, painting pumpkins, and playing Halloween games.
A similar scene is playing out in day cares across the country this morning, but there’s a twist in the plot at St. Ann’s. It’s not other children who sit waiting patiently down the hall for the toddlers to arrive. They are seniors, individuals with Alzheimer’s and dementia, as well as younger adults with cognitive and physical disabilities. But to these toddlers, they are just their “adult friends.”
According to nearly everyone you encounter at either this campus or its sister site 20 minutes south in St. Francis, Wisconsin, the St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care is much more than a day care. Every day, close to 500 individuals ranging in age from 6 weeks to upward of 90 years come to spend the day together in these two buildings.
Whether they are at the dawn of life or its twilight, whether they are learning their names or forgetting them, whether they are from a loving home or all alone in the world, the staff and hundreds of volunteers want to make sure everyone who comes through the doors understands one thing: in this place, they are welcome.
A Shared Purpose
“It’s about developing meaningful relationships on the part of the children and generativity on the part of the older generations,” says St. Ann’s founder, Sister Edna Lonergan, OSF. “The older generations need to keep giving back. They need to have a sense of purpose. Everybody needs to have a reason to get out of bed in the morning. That’s how we grow. If we never have that sense of purpose or achievement, I don’t think we’re happy.”
Planned intergenerational activities, such as music class and literacy club, are frequent, but staff and clients say the real beauty of the concept lies in the spontaneous interactions enabled by the open-concept design of both the new Bucyrus campus and the original Stein campus in St. Francis. At the heart of both of these buildings is a large gathering space, or “intergenerational park.”
“The way our campus is set up, it makes us move throughout the center in ways where we encounter as many different people as possible,” explains Angie Squiers, director of child care at the Stein campus.
Children are frequently led on walks around the building so they can see and communicate with their adult friends, who are informally grouped by the level of care they require. Even the smallest clients get in on the action: babies in strollers are wheeled into the Wellness Unit in the afternoons so they can be spoiled and cuddled by these sets of foster grandparents. Whenever the infant care rooms are overwhelmed with persistent crying, a “rock-a-bye alert” goes out over the building’s intercom to let all staff and clients know that a few extra baby whisperers are needed in the childcare wing. This is community-based health care taken to a new level, relates Sister Edna. “It really brings back the possibility of the extended family and how much we learn from our elders and people who are older and wiser than we are.”
A ‘Second Home’
For Sue Gock, St. Ann offers a day-care environment that embraces the two most important aspects of her identity: faith and motherhood. Gock, an award-winning forensic scientist, suffered a massive cerebral aneurysm in 2010. At the time she was the director of the Milwaukee medical examiner’s toxicology laboratory, but the aneurysm deprived her of the ability to work and care for herself. After enrolling Gock in two separate hospital rehab facilities to relearn how to walk, talk, and swallow, her husband and adult children began searching out places where she could continue her recovery.
When they visited St. Ann’s and saw the children running around, “They were like, ‘This is the place for Mom,’” she says. Now Gock can be found at the Stein campus’ Northwest Unit between two and four days a week. She meets regularly with the physical and occupational therapists, making and reaching goals for strengthening her legs and walking more steadily. By participating in jewelry making, she has improved her dexterity and hand-eye coordination. She now walks more steadily and can resume some activities around her house.
But what makes this place her “second home,” she offers, is the fact that she can regularly interact with children of all ages. “That’s what I love the most: these kids. They help you get back to being normal,” she says. “They remind you of your kids. I like to tell them they can be whatever they want to be. I always tell little girls, ‘You can go into science, too.’”
Back at the Bucyrus campus, the 2-year-olds are gathering in the Wellness Unit to play a Halloween parachute game. Monday is “IG day” here, where little ones spend about 15 to 20 minutes with different groups of their adult friends. Several adults form a circle with their wheelchairs, children in between, helping the feebler ones to grasp the edges of a parachute. Others sit off to the side, watching. Not everyone wants to participate, and no one is ever obligated to. But even for them, the mood changes when the children enter the room.
“I love it when the children are here,” says Tania, one of the onlookers. “It’s the kids that make the difference for me.” There is cheering, hollering, clapping, and laughter as the group launches a pair of stuffed pumpkins into the air with the parachute. “Do you feel it in your upper arms? If you don’t, I’m gonna make you take it higher! I need you to feel this in your upper arms!” exclaims staff member Shanness Williams to the group. She explains later: “We want to keep them moving. Some don’t bend much. And it helps the children get out all that energy.”
Raising a Sensitive Generation
“They still have a lot of independence, and we want to maintain what they’ve got,” says activities coordinator Wanda Gray. It is the mission of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, who run St. Ann’s, to serve the underserved. That was what inspired Sister Edna to open the St. Ann Adult Day Care Center in 1983 in the basement of her convent. She was alarmed by the increasing rate of institutionalization of senior citizens, many of whom required only minimal daytime assistance.
Over the years, many of her employees were single mothers who struggled to find child care. She allowed them to bring their children to work and realized the energy it created in both the staff and the clients. In 1999, she officially incorporated child care into the St. Ann’s ministry with the opening of the Center for Intergenerational Care. Since that time, the mission of St. Ann’s has expanded. In addition to serving the underserved, what Sister Edna and her colleagues hope to do now is to raise a generation of children sensitive to the needs of those who live on the margins of society, rather than fearing them or, worse, ignoring them.
This philosophy is a huge selling point for the child day-care center. At the Stein campus, there is a waiting list of one to two years. Like many other St. Ann’s parents, Karen Espiritu put her son, Ethan, on the waiting list before he was even born. She works in health care and wants her son to understand that “there are people out there who need daily help, and that’s OK. These people are part of our society just like we are. It’s not that they’re weird or strange; it’s just a different normal,” she says. “I think, societally, we tend to not see them on a day-today basis.”
Charles Stollenwerk has been sending his three children to St. Ann’s for five years. He feels that it gives them a broader view of the world. “You learn to have some common understanding. It’s not just black and white or good and bad. Knowing what’s driving people, knowing that somebody may have a different set of experiences than you do or maybe a different level of abilities, just makes [the children] think a little bit more,” he says.
Karen Bauer’s daughter Cecilia, age 4, doesn’t have many opportunities to interact with senior citizens outside of her experience at St. Ann’s. “Both of my grandmas are deceased, and both of her grandmothers are fairly young. This is her exposure to elderly people that she wouldn’t get elsewhere,” Bauer points out. “I think [her] seeing that as you get older, you can still be an active member of the community—that’s a big deal.”
A Friend at Every Turn
Children “might be fearful at first,” when encountering adults with disabilities or senior citizens, explains Squiers. That’s OK at St. Ann’s. “We often say it’s all right to ask questions. We don’t want to make them feel bad about being fearful. We explain that these are our friends. Everyone here is our friend: Would you like to meet them?”
“I remember one of the very first times that we went there, there was a woman who was nonverbal, and my daughter would just stare at her,” says Bauer. “I kept reminding her, ‘That’s one of your adult friends; she goes here at St. Ann’s, too.’ Now, my daughter would not look twice at someone who’s different from her. To me, that’s invaluable.”
Abby Manning, whose two children attend St. Ann’s, relates, “I like to think that, if we’re out in public, they don’t flinch at seeing somebody who maybe looks different or is in a wheelchair—it’s not different for them.” Even though their family recently moved about 15 minutes southwest of the Stein campus, making for a more difficult morning commute, the Mannings did not even consider switching day cares. “We already have so much at St. Ann’s,” Manning adds.
“A lot of [the adult clients] don’t have grandkids. They’ve never been married. For them— to hold a baby, to play with a 2-year-old, to color with a 4-year-old—some of them might never have had that experience,” observes art therapist Yolanda Jones. “They help each other. They’re company for each other. They work together.”
“When we keep shutting the elderly away unnecessarily, what kind of message are we giving—that older people aren’t important or necessary?” Sister Edna asks. “Children, from a young age, are learning here that diversity is a good thing, and it’s something that’s very enriching,” she continues. “They have no problem getting up on someone’s lap who’s missing a leg. That’s just Jack or Joe.”
In the summer of 2017, St. Ann’s will host the Global International Conference presented by advocacy organization Generations United. Groups will come from all over the world to see the work done by St. Ann’s, attend presentations on innovative practices in the field of intergenerational care, and strategize ways to shift the cultural perception of the aged. Beyond that, Sister Edna has big plans for the future of St. Ann’s. With the 2015 completion of the 80,000-square-foot Bucyrus campus in one of Milwaukee’s most economically depressed zip codes, the momentum is strong. There is already a medical and dental clinic for disabled people at Bucyrus, and she is working on raising funds to add overnight respite care, an Alzheimer’s unit, and community gathering spaces such as a 350-seat band shell
“Primarily, the next generation of elderly people—the baby boomers—want community-based health care. They want to be able to stay in their own homes,” Sister Edna says. She is already hoping to build yet another campus, this one in central Milwaukee. “The central city is very large, and they need to have something astronomically beautiful— the very best for the children and the adults. I think we need a St. Ann’s in every neighborhood in the United States.”
Colleen Jurkiewicz is a freelance writer from Port Washington, Wisconsin. A work-at-home mother, she enjoys writing about the Church and also writes fiction in her free time.