Start a Playgroup in a Retirement Home

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Image: bjwebbiz

I started a playgroup, years ago, that met in a nursing home. Later, when I wrote an article offering six ways we can bypass today’s age-segregation to more fully involve children in their communities, I started the article with the tale of that playgroup. Readers keep asking for more details so they can organize something similar. Here’s my tale again, this time with some helpful hints. 

Surely my baby was as good as a dog.

I’d read that nursing home residents benefited enormously from contact with therapy dogs. During and after dog visits these elders were more alert and happier. So I figured, why not bring my baby to a nursing home?

Initially I’d thought about going room to room with my baby for one-on-one visits. But as I sat at a LeLeche meeting, it occurred to me that more babies might offer a bigger boost.

So I contacted a nursing home around the corner to ask. The administrator had never heard of such an idea but she was wildly enthusiastic. She referred me to the home’s activity director to start planning. That was the easiest part.

Then I starting talking friends with babies into forming a nursing home-based playgroup for our infants and toddlers. It took a LOT of convincing on my part to get them to agree. They were afraid of germs, smells, and their baby’s reactions to people with obvious disabilities.

I wondered about those problems too, particularly the germs. I know that some pretty virulent infections can get passed around in such facilities. So I talked a local store into donating a large carpet remnant for our little ones to crawl and play on. Between visits, the nursing home could roll it up for storage. It was a sort of “safe zone’ so parents felt their kids wouldn’t be exposed to germs or unwanted touching by the seniors.

I also told the staff that I’d call each day before a scheduled playgroup to ensure there weren’t any colds, flu, or other infections going around. And of course, asked that any individual residents who seemed ill would not attend. Parents also agreed to skip a session if they or their little ones seemed at all ill.

The first few playgroup sessions tested us. Not the nursing home residents, but the parents. There were, quite honestly, some seniors whose disabilities seemed a bit scary to us at first. But the babies didn’t care. Safely in a mom’s arms or in her lap they smiled, cooed, and waved to the residents with complete acceptance.

Parents brought a few toys each time and we all sat on the carpet with our babies. At first we felt a little like a zoo exhibit with a ring of wheelchairs around us, but that feeling went away. The elders were clearly delighted simply to see and hear babies.

There were certainly problems getting our group established. We started off with three mothers, one grandmother, and four babies. That’s actually a good number, although to keep the playgroup going we’d need enough people so that absences by one or two members wouldn’t whittle the session down too far.

Quite a few of the parents who initially said they’d attend just couldn’t bring themselves to show up. Only after they heard some glowing reports did a few of them give it a try. Honestly, such a playgroup isn’t for everyone. There’s a distinct pleasure in a playgroup itself, but parents who stayed committed also looked at our sessions as volunteer work.

We met regularly at that nursing home for several years. We held up picture books and read aloud to an audience old and young. We sang songs, played clapping games, and built block towers. Our babies grew into toddlers, elders and staff became our friends. Residents’ families and staff members often told us that our visits stimulated memories, generated activity, even inspired people who were mostly mute to say a few words. One woman who had refused to eat, doing little more than cry since her stroke, started eating again after spending the morning with our playgroup.

We were awed that the simple presence of babies made a difference. Just sitting on the carpet playing with our children helped people whose once full lives were now constricted. We benefited too. We learned the value of advice given by people older than our grandparents. We noticed how completely our toddlers accepted the physical and mental differences around them with natural grace. And we gained a sense of connection across the generations, a sense that’s far too rare in a a disengaged culture.

Tips

I had a ready pool of potential parents in my Le Leche group, but you can post information about the idea to all sorts of places, from your food co-op to house of worship. Try a local parent group, start a playgroup Meetup, find a chapter of the Holistic Moms Network or Moms Club.

Don’t be afraid to start a playgroup with only a friend or two. It’ll grow. Once you’re comfortable and have established a routine, start sharing your experiences on social media. And don’t forget traditional media. Our local paper wrote a short piece about our nursing home-based playgroup and ran a great picture of a profoundly wrinkled lady smiling at a baby. After that ran we had up to 12 parents who came to our sessions (the carpet piece was barely big enough).

You may prefer to organize a playgroup at an assisted living facility or senior center rather than a nursing home. These elders are healthier and much more able to engage in conversation with the kids.

Don’t limit yourself to the concept of a baby/toddler playgroup. A nearby senior center or assisted living facility may agree to set up any number of programs. Here are a few ideas.

  • I write in Free Range Learning about several initiatives such as a skills clinic where seniors offer workshops to kids, and Girlfriend Circle where a girls attend a monthly tea party with seniors.
  • Set up co-learning events, where kids and seniors together learn something new to them like whittling, cartooning, or pot throwing.
  • You might also start a program for preteens and teens to teach their elders tech skills, from downloading music to mastering a new smart phone.
  • Right now a documentary about a preschool housed in a retirement home is in the works. Present Perfect is still raising funds on Kickstarter for post production.
  • A senior retirement community not far from me offers a free apartment to music students who agree to offer concerts. It’s working beautifully.
start nursing home playgroup, preschool in retirement home,

Image: bjwebbiz

17 thoughts on “Start a Playgroup in a Retirement Home

    • Good point. I came with my firstborn, but several other children had older siblings. I suppose in a big facility with lots of staff members and visitors that exposure was just part of daily life. I trusted the staff not to bring elders who might have been on chemo or had other immune challenges.

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      • I just saw firsthand how dangerous it can be for the elderly to pick up germs from babies and children. They told us that is far worse than the reverse, so they must have really controlled who was allowed to participate. But I think it’s a wonderful idea to brings the generations together. Babies makes the elderly smile.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. This is such a lovely story. I am a little bewildered by the germs issue, I had no idea retirement homes were such a cesspit! I would have thought the danger would be from the children bringing germs in. In any case, such a beautiful thing you did. I remember when I took my baby to visit my grandad in a hospice, how charmed all the people were to see her, how they stared and talked and laughed, and how her presence brought my grandad out of his near-catatonic state. I’ll never forget him playing finger games with her and calling her pet names. Such a treasured memory. So I guess the good happens on both sides 🙂

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  2. This is nice. As someone who grew up in Asian culture, the presence of babies are much appreciated by grandparents to begin with (sometimes overwhelming, too haha). So I really can see how this idea could actually turns out to be a really happy & warm community interaction for everyone involved.

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  3. I love this idea. I regularly visit my dad who has advanced Alzheimer’s disease in his nursing home with my 14 yr old daughter & 17 month old twin boys. The boys spark all sorts of positive responses from my Dad who slips back to his true form as he tries to communicate with them (usually successfully) & play with them. It’s truly lovely to watch. The only problem I have is that they are inquisitive and lively and won’t sit still for longer than 5 mins at a time so it’s like an exercise class for me and my daughter running after them & retrieving them so that they don’t endanger any wandering residents by getting under their feet.

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  4. This is a beautiful idea and I am so happy that it ended up working out for you. The thought that babies and toddlers can do so much for an older generation is amazing, I especially loved the little aside about the woman who found the strength to start eating again after attending your playgroup. I have an aunt who works at one of the retirement homes in my hometown and I think she would be ecstatic to hear about this idea, I will definitely pass it onto her.

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  5. I recently started the same type of program in an assisted living community and am experiencing many of the same challenges that you faced–particularly getting people to participate. Our program is storytime in the facility with a stories, songs, and a craft geared for children 2 and up, their parents, and the residents. It’s a success when we have enough participants to hold the group, but it’s been a challenge to get people to attend. The residents are very happy to have the children visit and the children and parents equally enjoy spending time with the residents.

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    • In retrospect, I should have tried harder to contact organizations/groups as a way of inviting more people to the group. Here are some places you might try, Debbie.

      Houses of worship. Their members are surely open to activities that are of service and parents with young children are rarely encouraged to volunteer in any other capacity. Yours is tailor made.

      Local library. Ask them to post an announcement in the children’s section of the library or in their newsletter.

      Groups specifically for parents and their young children:

      Holistic Moms Network http://www.holisticmoms.org/

      Preschool PTA

      Le Leche League http://www.lalecheleague.org/

      Mom’s Club http://www.momsclub.org/

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  6. This is a great idea! I am sure the residents are excited when the play group will be coming in. I have seen where they are now having preschools in with nursing homes. I think its great because I am sure both parties look forward to seeing each other in that setting. Makes it a little easier to get through some days as a patient of the nursing home.

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  7. First, I would like to thank you for taking the time to share this amazing project. My name is Kielar Durant and I am the Community Services Specialist for the low-income communities on the island of St. Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands. One of my duties in this position is to facilitate activities and programs that can possibly benefit our residents. This project sounds like it would benefit the residents of our low-income Senior Living communities tremendously! I have connections with the local low-income child care facilities as well, which solves the issue of maintaining child participation. If you would not mind, I would like to have you as a point of reference. It would be amazing to have you as a contact if I ever run into issues that you may be able to advise me on. I will be eagerly awaiting your reply so that I may offer my contact information to you as well (if you agree to assist me, of course).

    -Kielar

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  8. I’ve been thinking of this idea for a few months and in searching ran across your blog. I posted in a mom group on Facebook and got an overwhelming response from moms who would love to do this, and now I’m trying to figure out what needs to happen. I contacted one facility today, and there was talk of volunteer orientations and background checks and TB tests, but the man didn’t know if only I as the organizer would need to do this, or if everyone in the group would have to. I’m wondering if this is something you ran into?

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    • So glad you’re taking steps to do this!

      I personally didn’t encounter a facility that required orientation, background checks, or medical tests. I understand why that could be required for regular volunteers who might, on their own, be walking through the facility and visiting patients in their rooms. Nursing homes and senior centers also welcome group volunteers on a regular basis —- a barbershop quartet, children’s choir, a church group coming in to do crafts with them, a puppet show, a band playing for a dance —– . These volunteers stay together as a group, not going individually into patient rooms. Your playgroup would fall into the second category. Just like these groups, you’ll be there regularly but only as a group. Nursing homes would have no entertainment programs at all if they expected every member of a group to undergo orientation, background checks, or medical tests. Let them know this. And check around with other facilities. You want to go where you’re welcomed!

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