​As long term and elder care enter a new decade, the need for quality services continues to remain a central component of programming and administrative decisions. Coupled with this goal is the current economic situation, which calls for many organizations and agencies to continue or expand their care with the same, or in some cases fewer, budgetary dollars.

Economic cutbacks and constraints have led many nursing facilities to create unique partnerships in order to maintain the quality care that is expected in their communities.

In Cedar Falls, Iowa, the University of Northern Iowa and Western Home Communities have established a partnership that has led to intergenerational relationship building, event planning, and quality programming that the residents appreciate and look forward to throughout the year.  

An Idea Is Born

At Northern Iowa’s Leisure, Youth, and Human Services Division, nearly 200 students are required to take a leadership class as part of their education. Ten years ago, a faculty member approached Jerry Harris, chief operating officer of Western Home Communities, with an idea that would benefit both organizations: Groups of students from the leadership class could design and implement evening special event activities for the residents. 
Programs of this type are known in the field of gerontology as intergenerational activities, which, according to the National Council on Aging, are “planned and ongoing activities that purposefully bring together different generations to share experiences that are mutually beneficial.”
In preparation for the events at Western Home Communities, student groups meet with Western Home’s program director, tour the grounds, and learn about the facility and its residents.
The students then begin work on creating the evening special event activities, each of which must include a theme. Students are also required to use resources at the facility or bring in their own.
The groups are responsible for marketing, setting up for the special event, leading the various activities, and cleaning up the facility or area once the event is over. The evening activities must be designed for all ability levels, and students are tasked with making adjustments, if necessary, that enable all residents to participate.
For the leadership class, students must complete an assignment that addresses a number of items related to the evening special event activities, including the logistics of the event, examples of effective and ineffective leadership, and what they learned working with the residents.

A Win-Win Situation

Over the past 10 years, the student groups have designed and implemented unique activities that leave a lasting impact on them, while the clinical and social setting provided by Western Home Communities allows the students to gain valuable insight and experience in the field of geriatrics.
Many students appreciate this leadership opportunity and have continued to volunteer and intern with the organization. As one student said, “The impact of doing the special event at Western Home opened my eyes to opportunities in the leisure field and that I can make a difference in a person’s life, even if I am only with them for a short while.”
Many students had not worked with elder populations before, but as activities and programs in the leisure field cater more and more to this group, the benefits of this experience will extend to the students’ future career aspirations. The collaborative effort between the University of Northern Iowa and Western Home Communities benefits staff as well. The special events that occur provide new, fresh ideas for future usage by permanent staff workindg at the facility.
One semester, a student group used a Wii video game system as part of its evening special event activities. The residents enjoyed the opportunity to actively participate, and Western Home Communities went on to purchase multiple Wii video game systems for the residents to use regularly.
A student from that group volunteered to show the staff how to set up the video game systems and demonstrate how to use them so staff could show the residents.

Multiple Benefits

The residents benefit from participating in the special event activities in a variety of ways. They continually ask the staff when the “UNI students are coming back” to do activities with them.
Many of the residents express how much they love the students’ energy and creativity, as well as enthusiasm for doing things with them. Residents will often participate in new activities, such as putting together a memory quilt or creating decorative door hangers, while others revisit existing skills, such as carving pumpkins.
 There is also a greater benefit from the activities—the time spent allows two generations to connect and learn from each other.
One student group designed an evening special event celebrating Veterans Day. Since many residents at Western Home are military veterans or spouses of veterans, this opportunity allowed the students to learn firsthand about daily life when the United States was involved in a global war.
During the activities, residents and students engage in conversations that are thought-provoking and informative. There is an intergenerational link between the two groups, and the students often inform the faculty member how educational their time was with the residents.
The residents, meanwhile, appreciate the opportunity to share their life experiences with the students as a means of educating.
The residents were informally engaging in “generativity,” or demonstrating a concern for establishing and guiding future generations. The residents hope that by imparting their knowledge and experiences to the students, it will have a positive impact on them.
In addition, learning takes place because the students and the residents have positive viewpoints of each other.
By engaging in effective leadership and fellowship, both the students and residents benefit from this collaborative effort.
Click HERE to read about a University of Wisconsin program that has generated more than 175,000 student visits to nursing facilities.
Click HERE for a list of websites that offer resources on starting an intergenerational program in a nursing facility.
Christopher Kowalski, EdD, is assistant professor, Leisure, Youth, and Human Services Division, University of Northern Iowa. He can be reached at: Kowalski@uni.edu. Jerry Harris, chief operating officer of Western Home Communities, can be reached at Jerry.harris@westernhome.org.