GrandPals helps preschoolers and seniors laugh, play and dance across the generation gap

By Gary Walker

Left: Ruth Mechur and Buck Jacobs, left, paint next to Traves Willett as teacher Annel Zavala looks on (Photo by Sherri Akers)
Right: Marie Hustler-Rolf gives preschooler Traves a high-five (Photo by Maria Martin)

Ruth Mechur and Buck Jacobs have a date to keep each Thursday. They only met about a month ago, laughing together and sharing personal stories as they painted pumpkins for Halloween.

She’s 90; Buck is 4. You’d think she was his grandmother, but she’s his GrandPal.

Mechur is a resident of Sunrise Villa, an assisted living home in Mar Vista for the elderly and those battling Alzheimer’s or dementia. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, a group of young students from nearby Voyages Preschool join Sunrise residents for 30 to 45 minutes to talk, laugh and play games.

“I love it. How can you not be happy when you look at those sweet little faces?” said Mechur, who has three sons, four granddaughters and four great grandchildren.

GrandPals began as a collaboration between Mar Vista residents Sherri Akers and Paola Cervantes. Cervantes is the co-founder of Voyages, where she also teaches. After attending a professional development conference that highlighted the brain development benefits of children and older adults spending quality time together, she was inspired to connect her preschool students to surrogate grandparents.

“We live in a time where grandparents often no longer live in the home and there’s not that kind of interaction with grandparents and grandchildren,” Cervantes said.

Akers, whose father Ken is a resident at Sunrise, had seen a news article about a preschool that was embedded inside a senior living community and approached Cervantes about bringing some of her students to Sunrise.

“The magic of GrandPals is having the activities that inspire social interaction and engagement,” Akers said.

Cervantes decided to name the program GrandPals because, while the seniors are not the children’s grandparents, many of they have become close friends.

On a recent Thursday, Cervantes and teacher Annel Zavala pulled six students in small covered wagons along the two blocks between Voyages and Sunrise, both on Grand View Boulevard.

Left: Maya Zolotaryev holds hands with Camden Espinosa and Charley Harris-DiStefano
Right: Stella Flores-Robinson and Charley give dancing a whirl
(Photos by Maria Martin)

“It’s the children!” exclaimed Sunrise resident Maya Zolotaryev as the kids climbed out of their wagons in front of the building.

Soon the children are playing games and painting leaves with their GrandPals, who engage their young friends in discussion and coo over their handiwork.

Cervantes said she noticed an immediate bond between Mechur and Buck when they met in October and sat next to each other painting pumpkins.

“Exploring things side by side — that became the conduit for them to connect. What was amazing was that it happened organically. It was very powerful,” Cervantes said.

Akers’ father was entering the early stages of dementia last year when he met a four year-old boy from Australia during a GrandPals visit. They also quickly became attached.

“Leo, the little boy, had his immediate family here but his grandfather had passed away. And almost as soon as they met they forged this special connection,” Akers recalled with a smile. “He started bringing Dad cupcakes and would stand side by side with him, and I would see Dad engage in a way that was unique to the rest of his day.”

Dr. Stephanie Mihalas, a nationally certified school psychologist who works with preschoolers and adolescents, said visiting their GrandPals gives Voyages children an early head start toward developing empathic skills.

“Bringing preschool children at such a young age to an assisted living center and allowing them to interact with the seniors helps them build relationships and allows them to see outside of themselves. Children innately love storytelling and play because that’s how they learn,” Mihalas said. “The narrative aspect of the relationship is so important. In some cultures, people talking about personal or family histories are how they preserve a culture, because otherwise real stories can get lost.”

Cervantes said the children look forward to their time at Sunrise as much as the seniors look forward to their time with the kids: “They always ask, ‘Is today GrandPals day?’” she said.

Zolotaryev has a daughter, but no grandchildren. A teacher in her native Russia, she enjoys the twice-weekly visits.

“I like playing with them,” she said, “and I think they like me.”

Dr. Amy Rosett, who specializes in the field of geropsychology — a branch of psychology that addresses the unique concerns of aging — is familiar with programs similar to the GrandPals model and says the children’s visits can often be the highlight of the day for older people living in an assisted living facility.

“The pleasure of being around younger children gives them the opportunity to feel that they’re doing something useful and meaningful, and gives them a sense of purpose,” Rosett said.

During two visits this month, Zolotaryev and 4-year-old Charley Harris-DiStefano spent time with each other painting and just making funny faces at each other. Last Tuesday, they danced together.

Cervantes said the children enjoy dancing and want to include their GrandPals, so they often moderate or restructure their more acrobatic moves so that their senior friends can join them.

Mihalas said that is called social perspective-taking, which typically takes place later in life.

“When children that age can have a real-life experience like this, like playing or talking with the seniors, they can learn these skills that much earlier,” she said.

“It’s a great experience for both of them,” Rosett added. “Unconditional acceptance by children can help older adults be more self-accepting of their condition and reduce the stigma of ageism.”

The visits are especially meaningful for Mechur, who rarely gets to see her great-grandchildren.

“I’m so happy that they come. Seeing them makes me feel good,” she said.

Akers would like to see programs like GrandPals expanded to libraries and other locations, not just in Mar Vista but throughout the city.

“My hope is that this will inspire other senior living communities and preschools to follow our example and do the same thing,” Akers said. “This is an initiative that every senior community should have.”