The four “grandmas” playing pinochle grinned when Elson Daniels ran to their card table. Seated in a cozy living room overlooking a snow-covered courtyard in Billings, Mont., they greeted the toddler by name. Elson, 17 months, headed for a couch where Scharlotte Ruff, 90, hugged her pint-sized friend.
Ruff has lived in an apartment at St. John’s Lutheran Ministries in Billings for more than two years. She enjoys kids and has her own children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren living in the Billings area.
About 500 seniors live on St. John’s main campus in apartments (independently or with supportive services), skilled nursing cottages or transitional care. Through the Center for Generations, they share their home every weekday with about 80 children who range in age from newborns to elementary students.
The center has had a home at St. John’s since the child care facility was built in 1999, but the ministry started two years earlier at King of Glory Lutheran Church, Billings. It’s one of 23 ELCA congregations that owns St. John’s, which has long been known as an innovator in the senior living field.
“It’s great,” Ruff smiled when asked about visiting with the center’s children. “It’s more like home when I can go to the kids’ activities.” There are sing-alongs and story time, crafts and even a yoga class with preschoolers.
“We start with 6-week-old babies, some are our staff members’ children, some other community members’,” said Elisabeth Daniels, Elson’s mother and one of four chaplains on campus. “When the kids are sick, our elders pray for them. They love them. They watch their growth and delight in their songs. Every day at least one elder asks me about my little guy.”
St. John’s CEO David Trost said the intergenerational ministry is integral to the organization’s Christian mission. “Infusing the environment with children allows elders to be relevant and provide meaningful participation in nurturing the lives of children with stories and experiences,” Trost said. “The children will be better equipped themselves to bring hope, dignity and love to others.”
“Infusing the environment with children allows elders to be relevant and provide meaningful participation in nurturing the lives of children with stories and experiences. The children will be better equipped themselves to bring hope, dignity and love to others.”
Children and elders see each other frequently throughout each day. Teachers often take their classes for impromptu strolls indoors, especially when it’s too cold to play outside.
One morning, five preschoolers waved and stretched in a gentle yoga class. Ten women watched intently from chairs or wheelchairs. “It’s amazing how much we see them, and it’s fun,” said resident Lois Richardson.
The living room soon resounded as tots and elders sang, “If you’re happy and you know it, shout ‘Amen!’ ” Teachers led the singing, and elders kept their eyes on the kids. They finished with hugs and high-fives all around. The kids aren’t shy about walking up to a person in a wheelchair.
The intergenerational ministry is a blessing for the children’s parents too.
“I moved and built my house where St. John’s could take care of my kids,” said nurse manager Brittney Frickle. Her oldest child, Elly, 13, was in St. John’s child care from 4 months to 8 years.
“It’s given my oldest an appreciation for the elders. She volunteers here when she has a day off school,” Frickle said. Now in middle school, Elly has been asked to assist classmates who have disabilities because she is so comfortable with them.
“Being at St. John’s is a gift from God to me and my family,” Daniels said. “From a pastor’s perspective, I’m always trying to find new ways to get kids more involved with worship and the lives of our elders. For the past few years, we have had a Palm Wednesday service. It has begun with a children’s sermon and the kids parading through Chapel Court with palms. It is a beautiful experience, and watching the elders watch the kids fills my heart.”