Valentine’s Day this year will be a little more special for residents of Avamere at Seaside and local students, thanks to a partnership between the senior care community and Pacific Ridge Elementary School.

“I get very excited about the connection between the children and the adults,” said Erin Zellmer, who started as Avamere’s life enrichment director five months ago. “There’s just so much richness there.”

For the past few weeks, seniors at Avamere have put together Valentine’s cards with goodies, which the teachers plan to distribute to students during the Share the Love event on Saturday.

At the same time, some elementary school teachers have been working with their kids to create fun Valentine’s decorations for the retirement home that will be hung up in public areas so everybody on campus can enjoy them for a couple months.

Erica Acton, a fifth-grade teacher at Pacific Ridge, said it’s been enlightening to see how the students have connected to the project. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, young people have experienced a taste of what it’s like to be isolated, even housebound, or not have as much social interaction.

“There is a connection that maybe there wouldn’t have been,” Acton said. “My class was more understanding and compassionate about why you would want something on the walls to cheer you up. … They’re feeling similar to the way the residents do.”

Zellmer echoed that sentiment, saying the residents also “feel separated from the community, so this is really important right now.”

Connecting seniors and youth

The Valentine’s Day exchange is the latest step in a developing collaboration between students and the life enrichment program at Avamere at Seaside that Zellmer initiated several weeks ago.

“It fits really, really well with our strategic plan,” instructional coach Cate Blakesley said, adding the district’s mission, vision and goals all refer to community outreach and partnerships as part of a well-rounded and engaging education for young people.

The first step was starting a virtual story time for three kindergarten classes at Pacific Ridge. The sessions, which take place Monday and Tuesday mornings via Zoom, typically lasts about 15 minutes and involve one of the older adults reading a preselected book to the students. Zellmer invites anyone at Avamere to have a turn if they want.

The nature of their involvement can vary. Zellmer spoke of one woman who “is gung-ho about reading on Monday morning,” but as she struggles with dementia, “she reminds me to remind her.” Another resident attended a recent story time, excited to see the children, but he wasn’t quite comfortable doing the actual reading.

“He wanted to sit behind me and hear the song,” Zellmer said. “It was very fun for me to be witness. I think next week, he’ll be more comfortable to do the reading.”

Zellmer, a former elementary school teacher, is a big proponent of fostering intergenerational relationships, particularly between youth and older adults.

“It’s a very unique relationship, especially in this day and age when a lot of people don’t know many elders,” she said. “The elders have so much to offer, and the children bring such a smile to their hearts.”

Looking ahead

Although the partnership is limited to virtual interactions because of the pandemic, Zellmer has a broad vision for how it could evolve in the future. She’d like to see the senior living community host picnics, beach outings and field trips, or have the children come spend the day putting together a play with the residents.

“It gives the children a chance to see the elders in a different light,” Zellmer said, adding the intergenerational element “gives them an insight into the history of that person’s life, which is very different from their own.”

In the meantime, she and the teachers will continue exploring virtual activities to foster the connection. From asking the young people to lead virtual workshops on how to use various technologies to encouraging the residents to share their histories with the kids, they see plenty of potential.

“We’re in the brainstorming part,’” Acton said, adding the students know so much that they don’t necessarily consider a distinct skill, although it would be useful for others. “Right now, it’s super important just to feel connected to the community because we don’t go places or see as many different types of people.”

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