Through the “Senior Buddies Intergenerational Project,” students from Lafayette Elementary visit residents at Brookdale Admiral Heights, a senior-living community in West Seattle. The friendships that are born last beyond the school year.
A full half-hour before, the crowd starts to gather in the lobby. People with walkers come off the elevator and shuffle to a clear spot. Some drop into chairs in the library while others hover not far from the door. Waiting.
Outside and down the block, a gaggle of third-graders freshly sprung from their classroom make their way down California Avenue. They bob across Admiral Way, then wave to the owners of the Spira Power Yoga studio as they pass before stopping outside the doors of Brookdale Admiral Heights. Waiting.
In that moment, the students from Lafayette Elementary and their “senior buddies” at Brookdale are just a swoosh of the automatic doors apart.
But they are also separated by 50 years or more — a gaping span of time that should leave them with nothing in common and little to talk about.
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That all falls away when the doors open and the kids stream in, and the older residents gather for a moment that only comes a couple of times a month, when these students come to visit.
“Is Pat here?” one girl asks, looking around the room.
“Can you introduce Gwen to Ginny, please?” asks teacher Regina Baleto-Ferguson, who stands with Nancy Cossette, Brookdale’s resident-programs coordinator, peering over a sheet of paper with the names of the students and their resident buddy.
“Who is Dawn’s buddy?”
One kid starts playing “Heart and Soul” on the piano.
“Grace is here!” one girl says.
“Pat’s here! Yay!”
For some, there are kisses on the head and half-hugs. Other children are momentarily tentative, but then warm to the seniors’ faces and voices.
Amid the happy chaos, one man dozes in a chair while another reads the paper.
The program started in January of last year, when Baleto-Ferguson ran into Anne Weglin, Brookdale’s sales and marketing director, at the nearby Metropolitan Market. Baleto-Ferguson suggested a six-week community-service project, where students engage with the Brookdale residents about their schoolwork, their lives. Whatever came up.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen,” said Cossette. So she made up a flyer, inviting residents to participate in a “Senior Buddies Intergenerational Project” with third-graders interested in their life stories. They would play Jenga and read. They would play music and sing.
Many residents were nervous about how they would connect with young children.
“What will I say?” more than one asked Cossette.
So the students prepared five questions for the residents to ponder before their first visit: What city did you grow up in? What is one dream you had in third grade? What activity did you love in third grade? What activity do you love now? What is one thing you know now, that you didn’t know when you were a third-grader?
Cossette and Baleto-Ferguson take pains to match residents with students who share the same interests and traits. A quiet resident with a quiet student — both of them happy to sit and read together.
It went so well that, after six weeks, everyone wanted to keep the senior-buddies program going.
“It’s been amazing to see the friendships that happen,” Cossette said. “It really brings the residents back to life.”
The residents have family come through, “But it’s different with children they don’t know,” Cossette said. “It brings them out of a funk.”
“When you see their faces, you see them coming through the door, it’s just great,” said Pat Eastly, a former docent at the Seattle Art Museum who has been at Brookdale for less than a year.
“What I get from them is having a marvelous new friend,” she said. “When they come in, I think, ‘Wow! They’re back!’ It’s such a thrill.”
On this day, the students read the residents reports they did on animals like the Eurasian lynx and kit foxes.
“They’re so smart,” said Ginny Bullock, who moved to Brookdale from Sequim three years ago.
“They wanted to teach me to play chess. I wasn’t so smart at their age. They’re traveled. One’s been to Australia and Hawaii.”
The relationships are different from those between grandparents and grandchildren. But no one could put their finger on exactly how.
“You don’t know them like you do your grandchildren,” Eastly said. “So you try to find out what they’re like and catch up with their lives.
“It’s kind of challenging, but in a really good way,” she said. “It’s an open friendship. I feel like I am a friend, a loving friend. A teacher exchanging values and life lessons.”
The program seems to work because the students and the residents meet each other in a sociological sweet spot.
Third-graders are “super empathetic,” Baleto-Ferguson said.
“They live in the moment,” she said. “They’re not distracted by anything. They’re really present.”
Indeed, none of the kids seemed to notice the walkers, or the tentative way some of the residents moved. One student’s mother told Baleto-Ferguson that he didn’t hug his own grandmother — but that he hugged his Brookdale buddy.
Peyton Palmer, who is 8, is buddies with Jeanne Anderson, 79.
“She’s, like, one of my friends and she’s really nice,” Peyton said. “I was sort of nervous when I first met her but now, I’m not that nervous. I like that she listens whenever I’m trying to talk.”
Said Anderson: “I know her as a curious little girl who is having a good time. But gosh, you’ve got to listen to three things at once.”
Diana Palmer said her daughter was tentative at first, but after the second visit to Brookdale, came home chattering about her friend Jeanne.
“You see these people in a different lens,” Palmer said of the Brookdale buddies. “We don’t have a lot of elderly people we start relationships with. To me, that’s special.
“Jeanne seems to really care about Peyton.”
John Suzick, a former football coach at Renton High School, has been part of the program from the start.
“Being a 97-year-old man and having children who are living away, it’s a thrill seeing how these kids operate.”
He usually spends time with three boys who sit with him at a table where residents play poker (“We don’t play for money,” Suzick was quick to point out). One day, the boys figured out how to fix the card-shuffling machines, which hadn’t worked for months.
“Those kids engineered those shufflers so all of them worked,” Suzick said with a laugh.
Any plans to teach them to play poker?
“Ah … no,” he said. “If we had the time.”
Ken Lowthian once worked for the deputy mayor of Seattle — and attended Lafayette Elementary. He still has the pin he earned as a member of the safety patrol there, and shared it with the students.
“It takes me back to my childhood,” he said of the visits. “Lots of good memories.”
In truth, he said, the kids aren’t that much different from the one he was, or the ones he knew all those years ago.
“I don’t think they’ve changed an awful lot,” he said. “But I think they’re more open, more interested. They seem more adult to me than I expected. They’re well-educated and well-behaved. They’re anxious to tell me things and I try to respond well.
“It’s a personal relationship,” Lowthian said. “I would consider myself a friend.”
Said Dorie Jennings, who moved into Brookdale last August: “They’re all very polite and I’ve become very attached to them. It’s wonderful to have them in my life.”
The visits don’t end with the school year. Several students have come back on their own over the summer. Some come at Halloween or Christmas. And more than once, a student has popped in while headed to the Admiral Theater across the street.
“It was very nice,” said Dana Beebe, 62, of the day her buddy, Henry, visited with his dad and sister on their way to the movies.
“It was really nice because I’m new to this state, so I don’t really know anyone,” she said. She moved from Colorado to Bainbridge Island in 2012, and to Brookdale 18 months ago.
“Kids just bring a different atmosphere to this place,” she said. “They get to meet older people and learn that they’re human, too.”
She remembered telling the kids about the Easter Sunday when it snowed, and that instead of an Easter rabbit, there was an Easter ostrich who brought eggs made of ice cream.
“It was just a silly thing,” she said. “But it was pretty funny. They’re always good for a laugh.”
Only once has a student lost a buddy in the time the program has been happening. Baleto-Ferguson broke the news to the student, and he was matched with someone else.
After the chicken dance and the song, the kids filed out, some with hugs, others with waves. One of the residents stood by the door with a tray of cookies.
And, as quickly as they had come in, the kids were gone. But the energy in the lobby would stay for a long while.