. . . With a Baby In Your Arms and a Toddler in Your Lap!
As a mom of three, I have found it extremely challenging, if not impossible, to engage in any kind of meaningful, ongoing community service with little ones in tow. But I have discovered a way that allows even the youngest of participants--babies, toddlers, and preschoolers-- to give and to get every bit as much as everyone else in the room and I want to shout it from the rooftops!
In addition to being a mom, I am also the director of Music Together of Decatur. Music Together of Decatur classes always offer a rich musical experience, filled with singing, dancing, instrument playing, and bonding for little ones and their grown-ups. But now, along with about one hundred Music Together centers around the country, Music Together of Decatur offers a variation on this mixed-age class: the Generations Class.
What makes the Generations Class extra special is that babies, toddlers, preschoolers, and their grown-ups are also able to share the music-making with residents at an assisted living facility. Music Together of Decatur Generations teacher Kenya Engram is a music therapist with special expertise in helping new parents develop a musical bond with their little ones and many years of experience helping seniors rehabilitate and improve the quality of their life. What difference does Generations really make for seniors?
Music Together founder and artistic director Kenneth K. Guilmartin notes five tangible benefits of the intergenerational class experience.
● Singing engages the whole brain. Studies show that a senior’s active engagement with music provides a host of benefits for the older brain, increasing oxygen and blood flow, stimulating focused attention, activating memory, even temporarily mitigating the symptoms of dementia for older adults. Music also lights up the young child’s brain, stimulating and strengthening important neural connections for music as well as for other areas of learning.
● Music does a body good. For both young and old, singing engages the body, exercising the lungs, stimulating major and minor muscle groups and promoting coordination. For children, music-learning is multisensory: important musical knowledge happens through experiencing movement, both through their own bodies and through the model of others.
● Singing really does make us happy. Studies show that singing reduces stress and makes seniors feel happier, decreasing risk for depression. Cortisol levels in babies are regulated when they are sung to lovingly, resulting in a sustained “quiet-alert” state, which supports learning.
● Singing together equals meaningful connections. When people of all ages make music in a community with their voice and body, they have great fun together and often experience “belonging,” being part of something deeply important and purposeful.
● Singing creates memories, old and new. Music can spark the recall of past experiences for seniors, even those with dementia. It helps the past truly come “alive,” giving them access to deep feelings activated by remembering an event or moment from the past. It can help them connect the dots back to the past. But making music in an intergenerational setting can also help seniors create new memories, through pleasurable shared music experiences. For parents and children, making music with an extended “family” of multiple generations is often (at first) a novel experience. The new experiences inspire the creation of rich family memories that can last a lifetime.
I attended this weekly class with my own little one. I saw our grand-friends’ eyes move instantly from the television to the families, lighting up as each of us entered the room. I saw our grand-friends’ hands move from their laps to the eggs, sticks, and scarves that our toddlers brought them. I saw our wheelchair-bound grand-friends tap their feet to the music and our more mobile grand-friends join us on the dance floor. I saw each of our grand-friends-- even the least responsive of them-- join us in singing You Are My Sunshine as we wrapped up class each week. And I saw our grand-friend who’d declared throughout the semester that she didn’t have any grandchildren so she had to “really soak up this time” receive, on the last day of class, a framed picture from one of the mothers with the inscription, PATTY’S GRAND-FRIENDS.
There was something almost sacred about that time for my son and me and, by all accounts, for the other little ones and moms as well as for our grand-friends and the staff. We were all changed for the better.