A daycare center for all ages blooms in Milwaukee

This post is adapted from a report I recently wrote with Generations United and the Eisner Foundation, “I Need You, You Need Me: The Young, the Old, and What We Can Achieve Together.”

Many of the youngest Americans attend daycare. So do many of the oldest.

What if kids and elders who needed care during the day spent this time together rather than apart?

Sister Edna Lonergan first began to ask that question in the early 1980s, when she was running an adult daycare center in Milwaukee that employed mainly single moms.

“So when the schools were closed, I lost all my staff,” recalled Lonergan, who’s both a nun and a nurse. “They had to be home taking care of the children.”

“So I said, ‘Well, bring them in.’”

Some of her employees also had babies and toddlers, and Lonergan welcomed them, too.

Then she tried an experiment.

“We took our babies over to our sisters who were the most frail—the most frail—and we put the babies in their arms.”

“A couple of them started to cry. Not the babies. The adults. They looked at that baby in their arms and said, ‘I used to be a really good teacher. Or, ‘Can I really hold this baby? Can I rock this baby?’”

That’s how Lonergan got the idea for the St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care, which she opened on Milwaukee’s south side in 1999 and replicated on the north side in 2015. The center, which sustains itself with client fees, private donations, and public grants, serves about 100 children and 100 adults on each campus from Monday through Friday, morning to evening. For little kids, there’s a year-round preschool. For older kids, there’s before-school care, after-school enrichment, a summer camp, and a job skills program. Frail or isolated elders and disabled adults of all ages enjoy music, art, and other activities and receive services such as physical therapy and whirlpool baths.

But what really makes St. Ann special, its leaders and clients agree, is the way everyone comes together.

“This is such a joyful place,” said Casey Rozanski, vice president of fund development and marketing. “The adults bring joy to the kids, the kids bring joy to the adults.”

Twice a day, each campus offers a formal activity—a balloon volleyball game, a baking project, or a sing-along, for example—that unites the preschoolers and the grownups. There are lots of special events, too. Last November, each campus hosted a Thanksgiving feast for all ages to eat together, and at each site in December, the children staged a holiday assembly for the adults.

Throughout the day, the generations also mix informally. Each campus has a huge indoor “park” with plants, benches, and playground equipment. Cafes, shops, and health clinics serve clients of all ages and the public. On the south side, kids and adults converge in a swimming pool and at a hair salon; soon, a pool and a salon will be added on the north side, as well as a band shell for neighborhood concerts.

Linda Merrill, who’s been disabled for more than a decade due to multiple sclerosis, started going to the south side campus seven years ago because “just being alone was not a real good idea,” she said.

She was bored and depressed, she said, and “needed something to give me a boost.”

“Someone said something about St. Ann, and I came here and had a tour,” said Merrill, 68. “And I just thought it was wonderful.”

“I had hobbies and stuff, but I couldn’t really get into them. But I came here and they had jewelry making and all those things. And the more I got into them here, I would go home and get into them more at home.”

Merrill relishes being around the kids, some of whom she’s grown close to.

“There’s one little girl who constantly opens the door for me to get through with my walker,” she said. So, one day, she asked the girl what her favorite color was—the answer was pink—and made her a beaded bracelet in the jewelry studio.

“She was very happy.”

Merrill has also made many “really, really great” adult friends.

“It didn’t take long to get close to different people. You know, you find one, and another and another, [and] pretty soon you have this group of people.”

“You do things with your friends—you play cards, you play games, you take walks, sometimes it’s just laugh all day long.”

“That makes it where you want to get up in the morning and come here.”