Muriel wanted to be a mother. Over the years she had hoped to have children and grandchildren, but life never gave her the opportunity. Years later, she was an elderly resident at a skilled nursing center in Gorham, Maine, where she shared the building with 15 preschoolers. Every day she heard them singing in the elevator, counting as they climbed the stairs, or playing outside on the playground. This made her happy. 

It wasn’t long before Muriel and the children developed a special bond. Being a poet, Muriel had many poems to share, and each week she read a new poem to them. It gave her an opportunity to share something she was proud of and helped her with her fight against depression. She asked the children to call her “Mimi” since she always wanted to be a grandmother. When they did, she was filled with joy.

This is just one of many beautiful stories that come from Gorham House, a campus of care in Gorham, Maine, providing skilled nursing, assisted and independent living, memory care, and a preschool.

Making Magic Happen

​In speaking with the staff and residents at Gorham House about putting elderly residents and young children together, one often hears the word magic. 

“It’s a joy having the children share so much positive energy in the building,” says Michelle Belhumeur, executive director at Gorham House. “And we are sometimes in tears because of just the interactions that happen. The children will go up and hold their [resident’s] hand, or rub their back, or give them a hug. It’s almost another type of therapy for the residents. It’s magic.”

Meghan Pomelow is program director at the Gorham House preschool. To the preschoolers, all the residents are known as “Grand Friends.” She says togetherness is the key to making it all work. 

“The children visit with all of the neighborhoods two to three times per week,” says Pomelow. “And they do activities together. Some of their favorites are balloon toss, bingo, bean bag toss, and parachute—all activities that the Grand Friends and children can participate in together. 

“It’s so good for children and residents to see the ability that the residents have, and they can both do a lot of the same things.”

Kindness Matters 

The story of Gorham House starts in 1974. That was the year that Bill Gillis started his first nursing center–Clover Manor in Auburn, Maine. He frequently brought his five children with him during the summer months, snow days, and weekends. He quickly noticed the relationships that formed between his children and residents. It didn’t matter if a resident was confused or distracted, his children didn’t seem to notice. They were focused on how kind the residents were to them. 

Once Gillis saw the value in these relationships, he also realized that he could focus on his employees. Several single mothers worked for him, and he felt he could help them as well by starting a child care program. He opened his first preschool in 1980.

“He had a vision for having that intergenerational program and not having it isolated,” says Belhumeur. “The children are welcome in any part of the building.”

Often singing a special Grand Friends song, the children also visit those residents who prefer to stay in their rooms. Belhumeur says that other residents only come out of their rooms when the children are present, some to read to the children once a week.

In previous years, the children did not visit Oxford Common, Gorham’s secure memory care unit. But today, since Pomelow has headed the preschool program, the children are welcome there. “The residents love having the children around just like anyone else does,” she says. 

Pomelow says the connections that happen between the residents and children are natural. “Over the years, certain children just naturally connect with the residents, and they will seek out those residents every time they go to visit.” Even residents who don’t have the best memory will somehow remember those children every single time—by name. “It’s something magical that happens between them, and it’s so cool to watch,” says Pomelow.

Advantages for Residents

Belhumeur says the benefits she’s observed in residents are numerous. Enhanced feelings of self-worth, fewer falls, lower levels of depression, feelings of continued usefulness, and new, happy memories made at the facility are just a few. 

Some residents were teachers in the past, and all the interaction takes them back to younger days. “They really enjoy having the children around,” says Belhumeur. “They’ll talk about what age they taught and what they used to do in their classrooms, and it reconnects them to when they were younger.”

Gorham’s preschool program also lets everyone tap into the knowledge that residents have. Belhumeur recalls a day when she was reading a book to the children about what they wanted to be when they grow up. Residents were also present for the book reading. After asking all the children what they wanted to be, the children decided to ask the Grand Friends what they used to be. 

“And the answers we got were: ‘I was a teacher,’ ‘I was a nurse,’ ‘I was a teacher,’ ‘I was a nurse,’” says Belhumeur. “So I asked: ‘Why do you think our Grand Friends were mostly teachers and nurses?’ And we all talked about the fact that most of the Grand Friends didn’t have the same opportunities as children have today. Now, kids could choose any profession they want.” The residents shared insight about why there were limitations. Women were very limited, especially after they got married, they said.

Learning From Death 

While death and dying can be a challenge for both the Grand Friends and children, it’s a reality that everyone faces. 

The staff are very honest with the children at an age-appropriate level, says Belhumeur. Children get to ask all the questions they like and share what they learned at home. The preschool staff also read books to the children on the topic.

Pomelow recalls an instance when a resident died whom all the children loved. “After she had passed, the children went to see her room,” she says. The staff were nervous about what the reaction would be. After having seen the room with the bed made, one of the children simply said, “OK, she passed away, let’s go.” “They just needed that closure,” says Pomelow. 

When a resident dies, the family typically asks that those who would like to make a donation in the resident’s memory do so to the preschool program. With the money, the program then purchases an item in remembrance of the resident. 

Pauline was a treasured Grand Friend of the children. Every week, the children would visit her and sing her favorite song to her, “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.”

“Her face would light up the second the children arrived at her door,” says Belhumeur. “And as time went on, she began participating in the hand motions to the song and sing along with the children.” 

When Pauline passed, her family purchased a small stuffed spider for the children. “The children would take it out when they sang her song to snuggle with, or at rest time if they were feeling sad about her passing,” says Belhumeur. 

“If it’s done appropriately, it just gives them another experience to let them grow and learn about life,” she says.

Making 100 Count

100 year old with grand friend

Gorham recently had a resident who turned 100. The resident’s party was in the afternoon, when children typically have rest time. One parent said to Belhumeur, “I really want my son to go to this party. How often is he going to meet a 100-year-old?” So arrangements were made so the children could attend the party. The resident was interviewed by the local news, and the son was able to be a part of it. 

“A lot of people think by the time someone is 100, they are just lying in bed and someone is feeding them,” says Belhumeur. 

“To see this lady at 100 dancing in the lobby is something really special. We’re so glad we’re able to expose the children to these types of experiences.”