The neighbors across the street: Students, nursing home residents make friends

September 15, 2012 10:14:40 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


To most, it will look like a simple doorknob decoration. But to a group of wide-eyed kindergarten students and their brand new acquaintances, it's the start of something sweet. 


On Tuesday, during National Assisted Living Week Sept. 9-15, 21 students in Debbie McLaurin's class at Sale Elementary International Studies Magnet School made the first of what will be several visits to get to know their "neighbors across the street" -- seniors who live at The Arrington, Plantation Pointe's Assisted Living residence.  


The children didn't go empty-handed. Each had a bag with materials to decorate two foam doorknob hangers, one for themselves and one for the new "special friend" they were paired with. It was an interactive, kid-friendly way to get acquainted. The arts and crafts project also tied into the national theme for Assisted Living Week, "Art for the Ages." 


For almost all the children, it was their first exposure to an assisted living environment. For seniors who seldom have the opportunity to interact with youngsters, it was a sparkle in the eye and a smile on the lips. 


"When little kids come, our residents just light up," said Marie Hamilton, The Arrington's activities director. "For a lot of them, it's like having their grandkids come; it's wonderful." 


Bringing generations together has become a habit for McLaurin. She's been taking her students to visit residents since 2000.  


"A visit may seem like a little thing, but they can create a special bond during the year; they start to recognize and look for each other when we go back. We call them our special friends," smiled the long-time educator.  


Sale School and the entrance road to The Arrington are located opposite each other on Warpath Road in East Columbus. It's an easy walk and the experience benefits the folks on both sides of the street. 


Before Tuesday's visit, McLaurin spent some time preparing the children. 


"We talked about how we live in the city of Columbus and about neighbors -- and about how these are our neighbors across the street," the vivacious teacher shared. "This class just really took to it. They were so excited about going." 




Nursery rhymes,  


good times 


At their destination, the children -- mostly 5-year-olds -- introduced themselves with nursery rhyme and novelty songs, then eagerly paired up with residents to collaborate on decorating their foam door hangers. Conversations bubbled, and if they sounded something like bridges being built, that's the point. 


Through shared experiences, students learn to appreciate the knowledge and needs of their special friends, and many of the residents enjoy a meaningful connection. 


For those like Nancy Wilson, Tuesday's interlude was a bright spot, something she is thankful for, especially since losing her husband of 57 years to leukemia in 2010. 


"It's been very lonely at times; sometimes I'm depressed," the 75-year-old widow said candidly the day after the students' visit. "But," she continued, brightening, "I really enjoyed the children; they were so very well-mannered. I had a good time helping the little girl I was with make her door hanger, and I have mine hanging on my door," she pointed. 


For 92-year-old Julia Estelle Jones, the kindergarten class revived fond memories of her days as an elementary school teacher. She was also a supervising teacher at Demonstration School, when Mississippi University for Women was known as Mississippi State College for Women. 


"I love to be with the children; that's one of my favorite things to do," she smiled, surrounded by family photographs in her room. A saved arts and crafts project made with McLaurin's students last year still held a place of honor on her dresser. "It reminds me of children I've taught ... it means a lot for them to come." 


At the other end of the age spectrum, at school Wednesday 5-year-old Ania Landon happily announced "singing and hugging" as her favorite parts of the day.  


Daysha Johnson, also 5, said picking out a "new neighbor" topped her list. 


Evidence the exchange registered with her class was clear to McLaurin as soon as the walk back to school began Tuesday. 


"They really talk about it. You hear them say 'she said' and 'he said' and I see there's really been some good, true interaction," said the teacher, who will soon ask the boys and girls to draw a picture and make a journal entry about the visit. 


For McLaurin, occasionally heart-warming rewards come by way of emails and communications from grown children of the residents, expressing how much it meant to their parent or relative to spend time with the children. 


The class plans to pay calls on the "neighbors across the street" in October, then at Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine's and in the spring -- sharing gifts of the spirit and, of course, more hugs. It's one of the perks "special friends," enjoy.

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.