Reading to the Presidents

by Judy Ness

“Are you learning to read in kindergarten?” I asked my five-year-old granddaughter.

“Yes, Grandma,” she replied. “And, sometimes we get to read to the presidents.”

“You read to the presidents?” I asked, obviously puzzled by this comment.

“Yes, you know—the presidents that live in the building next to our school!”

One of the unique features of Genesis Classical Academy is the school’s location on the campus of Heartland Senior Living: Parker Oaks, an assisted living facility. This location provides many opportunities for the students to interact with the senior citizens (the “presidents” – also known as residents) who live in the assisted living facility.

The students are able to visit on a regular basis and read or sing to the senior residents. The elders are invited to attend and participate in activities, such as the annual fall festival, painting pumpkins, and sharing treats with the students. When there are activities at the school such as concerts or Veteran’s Day programs, the seniors are also invited to attend.

The forged intergenerational friendships are beneficial to both the seniors and the children. For many senior citizens living in care facilities, loneliness, boredom, and social isolation can be pervasive problems that lead to accelerated physical and cognitive decline. A research study by the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) found that “participants, age 60 and older, who reported feeling lonely, saw a 45 percent increase in their risk of death. Isolated survey respondents also had a 59 percent greater risk of mental and physical decline than their more social counterparts.” (AgingCare, March 5, 2018)

There can be many different causes which contribute to this social isolation and loneliness. In many cases, the senior residents do not have extended family living nearby. Overworked caregivers may not have (or take) the time to listen to and interact with the residents on a personal level. The effects of aging (limited mobility, loss of the ability to drive, and impaired hearing and vision) can make it difficult to engage in activities that were once enjoyed, get together with friends or communicate with others.  And, in many cases, members of the elder’s peer group have either moved or passed away.

Young children can bring life into a senior care facility, and interacting with the children can bring joy and a sense of purpose into the seniors’ lives. 

On a recent Monday morning this summer, 12 students from Genesis Classical Academy gathered to read to the residents. The halls and rooms of the residents were abuzz with activity. One young lady read the story of Jonah aloud to a group of residents in an upper lounge. Several pairs of students sat with residents in the gathering space, reading stories about a Japanese tsunami, and passages from “The Long Winter” by Laura Ingalls Wilder. One beginning reader was reluctant to read because the book she had chosen was too difficult, and she was struggling. “It’s OK, “said one of the resident grandmothers. “We can read it together.”

MaryJean Miller, who recently retired from teaching at Genesis Classical Academy, has been instrumental in encouraging the relationships between the students and seniors. “The faces of the residents light up when they see the students,” said MaryJean. “Many of them miss their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and for them, this is the highlight of their week.” The smiles and the comments of the residents echo MaryJean’s assessment. “I love them!” said one resident. “They are such good readers,” commented another.

The senior citizens are not the only ones who benefit from these friendships—the children benefit, as well. In our youth-obsessed culture, learning to appreciate the wisdom and experience of the elders is invaluable. Sharing their life experiences gives a sense of purpose to the senior citizens, alongside a timeless perspective and new-found appreciation to the students. The fact that a dozen students were excited to show up on a summer Monday morning to spend time with their senior friends shows the power of this connection. And sometimes there are other “perks” for the students—one young girl grinned as she left a resident’s room holding a chocolate bar. (Thanks, Howard!)

Whether we have a lot of candles on our birthday cake, or just a few, God has designed us for community. We all need to feel valued, loved, connected, and that we have something to contribute.  The young bring strength, exuberance, and energy. The old bring wisdom and experience. The students at Genesis Classical Academy and the residents at Parker Oaks have found a way to share the benefits of each stage of life.

Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come. Psalm 71:18 NIV

Judy Ness is a business owner, former teacher, and a passionate supporter of Genesis Classical Academy in Winnebago, Minnesota.  She and her husband James have 3 adult children and 4 grandchildren. They count among their blessings the wonderful education that their grandchildren are receiving at Genesis.