If you’ve ever visited the commons of an assisted living or skilled nursing facility, you know that they can be very quiet places. Lots of comfortable chairs around, and often lots of people sitting in those chairs, or sitting in a wheelchair—but not a lot of conversation or interaction.
Yes of course, there are planned activities in the facilities at different points of the day, but they’re often held in a separate activities room and not in the commons, which is typically very quiet for most of any given day. It’s like a doctor’s office waiting room, but without the magazines or the “health news” playing on seemingly endless loops on TVs. And most of the people in the commons do seem to be waiting for something—perhaps waiting for something to do, or for the next meal. Waiting for someone to talk to them.
But when children come into the commons room, that whole sleepy atmosphere changes almost instantly. People who had been gazing around blankly with nothing to focus on suddenly come to attention. Dozing eyes flutter open. The children quickly become the room’s main attraction, and most of the seniors who had been sitting there so quietly seem happy to see them and eager to engage with them.
I’ve seen that dynamic on numerous occasions, such as in March when kindergarten children from the Jewish Academy of Orlando came to Savannah Court and Cove in Maitland to sing Purim songs as part of that week’s Jewish Pavilion program. The children were all adorably dressed in colorful costumes for that fun and frivolous holiday, which gleefully celebrates a close escape from officially sanctioned death for the Jewish community in exile in ancient Persia.
As the kindergarteners paraded through the room before singing, the room’s energy level rose noticeably. People who had been sitting next to each other and not talking for who knows how long were exchanging smiles and making comments on the costumes or on the general cuteness all around them: “Look at that princess!” “Was that a ladybug?” “Aw, look at this one!”
My understanding is that most of the 30 or so people who were watching the children sing were not Jewish and probably didn’t know much about Purim or understand the songs, many of which were in Hebrew. It didn’t matter in the least! The seniors were enthralled as the children sang. Here was youth, here was vitality, enlivening this quiet, sleepy place. I think this visit from the children made everyone feel, for a short time at least, more connected to the world beyond the doors of their building.
After the songs were over, the children had little presents to give to the seniors. They each picked up a few bags of goodies from their teacher, then walked around the room looking for seniors to give them to. It is traditional for Jews to give gifts of food to others in celebration of Purim, and this was a perfect opportunity for the children to experience doing this mitzvah (good deed).
I was scrambling around the room trying to witness—and photograph—as many interactions as possible. I could see that even the shyer children seemed proud to have something to give to the seniors and were willing to engage with them. And of course, it was nice for the seniors to get the little presents, but most were simply delighted to have the opportunity to have little conversations with one or two of the children, to pat their shoulders or give them little hugs. The room was abuzz with energy, with light and smiles and laughter.
Many such sweet encounters are made possible by the Jewish Pavilion, whose program directors work to bring groups of children of all ages to interact with and entertain seniors in living facilities. These are wonderful experiences for the kids. And for the seniors, it really does make their day—and probably their week.