'Making grandfriends': Mankato care model draws kids, seniors together

Children and adults throw colored fabrics in the air.
Miranda Bapp, left, tosses up colored fabric into the air with children attending child care at Generations Child and Memory Care in Mankato, Minn., on Oct. 5 as elderly residents in memory care watch in the back.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

A large sign welcoming “grandfriends and kiddos” greets visitors by the entrance of Generations Child & Memory Care.

As residents cuddle infants, toddlers throw colorful fabric into the air like autumn leaves. Peals of laughter bounce off the walls. Some of the “grandfriends” as the youngsters call them use the cloth scraps to make funny hats for themselves. 

Staff supervising the mild mayhem are enjoying it too. 

Generations Child & Memory Care opened in 2021, first as a licensed child care center and then a separately licensed memory care facility several months later. There’s about 20 residents who live in Generations, and there’s a waitlist. On the child care side, there’s three classrooms and an infant room. 

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A woman in a wheelchair wears a red sheer fabric.
Lorraine Peterson smiles at children playing with colored fabric in the memory care wing at Generations Child and Memory Care in Mankato, Minn., on Oct. 5.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

There’s one locked door connecting the memory care and child care center. There’s always a staff member supervising interactions between residents and children. 

The center offers child care from six weeks to five years old. Generations staff sees intergenerational programming between children and residents as integral to both the younger and older populations.

“I honestly don’t know which side, whether the residents or the kids, love the activities more,” said Assisted Living Director Hayley Fast. “They both just get so excited to spend time with each other. And I think they both benefit from each other in multiple ways, so it’s really special.”

Fast said this model is also designed to break stigmas surrounding the way people interact with individuals with memory loss and build bonds. 

A woman holds an infant.
Pat Pierson, right, plays with Ashton Ehlert in the memory care wing of Generations Child and Memory Care in Mankato, Minn., om Oct. 5 as infants were brought over from the nursery to visit the elderly residents.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Owner Kristin Gunsolus’ inspiration for Generations came from a personal connection — her grandmother also experienced memory loss, and her grandfather came up with an idea of combining child care with memory care. 

“Dementia and Alzheimer’s is a really isolating disease,” Gunsolus said. “You forget how to do basic activities, you forget who your family members are. And so children, as in any aspect of life, they always can just make the day better.”

The Minnesota Department of Human Services doesn’t collect data on the number of child care centers operating in the same building or campus as an assisted living, adult day care or other type of residential building for elders. 

A young child looks sternly away from a playground.
Dahlia Iles, 2, stands outside on the playground at Generations Child and Memory Care in Mankato, Minn., on Oct. 5.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

However in a statement the agency said it was aware of “several child care centers who partner with these types of facilities” that bring adults and children together and provide intergenerational programming through reading, gardening, and arts and crafts. 

DHS did note that it heard from child care providers about “the challenges of providing services” and that in 2021, the state legislature directed the agency to review additional child care models not currently allowed under state statutes, and to make recommendations on possible new care models that could address Minnesota’s child care needs. 

“These types of child care programs reflect the ways local communities find innovations while adhering to current laws and regulations,” the statement reads. 

A woman reads a book to a crowd.
Miranda Bapp, left, reads the book "Caps for Sale" to children and residents of memory care at Generations Child and Memory Care in Mankato, Minn., on Oct. 5.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Interactions between elders and youth isn’t a new concept for many cultures where living with multiple generations is considered a norm. There is a growing interest in the benefits of intergenerational programming is settings such as health care and child care. 

Dr. Hsinhuei Sheen Chiou is a professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research and practice focused on creating engagement opportunities for individuals with dementia, including at Generations.

Chiou said over the last few years, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, the medical field is increasingly viewing socialization as an integral part of memory care. 

“I love that the facilities are doing that kind of effort to help bring the community together,” Chiou said. “So, it’s not just isolating individuals with dementia. Just trying to make sure they don’t fall. They stay safe. Now, we are considering all the social components and we treat them as a person.”

‘I love you more’

Back at Generations, preschoolers are spending time with their “grandfriends.” They laugh and smile. These are the moments that resident Pat Pierson cherishes. 

“And, what really is heartwarming is that they do know me,” Pierson said. “You know, it doesn’t mean just that they’re here. They do know me.”

All too soon, it’s time to go back to day care. The children slowly wave goodbye to their grandfriends. Pierson waves to her great-grandson, Liam Kaiser who’s turning three in December. 

Two children play in a sandbox.
Children attending child care at Generations Child and Memory Care in Mankato, Minn., on Oct. 5 play in the sandbox outside.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

“Bye, honey. I love you,” Pierson calls out to Kaiser. 

“I love you,” Kaiser said.

“I love you, more!” Pierson answers. 

With a hug and a happy wave, grandfriends and kids say their goodbyes for now. They’ll see each other again soon. 

A baby is held by too adults.
Ruth Ann Wills, right, says goodbye to Collins Osborne, 11 months, as Ellie Johnson, a staff member at Generations Child and Memory Care in Mankato, Minn., returns infants back to the nursery after visiting residents in the memory care wing on Oct. 5.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News