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Florida Connects the Generations

November 1, 2000

LARGO, Fla. (AP) _ Slowly and meticulously, the weathered fingers of 86-year-old Betty Haslett peeled sticky-back spiders from a package and handed them to Madison Finan Nelson.

The nimble-fingered 4-year-old slapped the spiders on the plastic orange bucket quicker than her patient friend could peel. ``This is fun but I need more decorations,″ Madison told Haslett, who rounded up more paper goblins.

At the Palms of Largo, an intergenerational community catering to children and seniors, residents take college classes and dine in style on chef-prepared meals. A doctor makes house calls. When time permits, there’s the spa or a relaxing massage.

``We try to create a world that captures the heart of children of all ages,″ says Melissa Manspeaker, director of the Palms Learning Center.

As Halloween approached, a group of about 20 children and seniors decorated smiley face pumpkins with stickers of ghosts, bats and cats.

``We all miss our grandchildren,″ said Haslett, who moved to Florida years ago from Bethlehem, Pa., and has nine grandchildren up north. ``We get such a lift from this, seeing the smiling faces of children. They are so full of life and happiness.″

Share time is a winning situation for young and old, Manspeaker said. The children learn respect and cooperation and how to look beyond frailty, wheelchairs and walkers to see aging as a natural process.

Seniors have patience and time, qualities that are short in some busy households. They offer experience and knowledge. In return, they get a lot of love and it shows in the glow on their faces.

More than 1,500 residents live at the Palms, a 96-acre compound 25 miles west of Tampa that was designed to accomodate their changing needs as they age. Households include families, active adults and couples with independent lifestyles, those who need light-to-moderate assistance and others who require special or long-term help.

The Palms is the creation of John Goodman of Minneapolis, who bought 700 apartments in the mid-1970s with a vision to build a complex where retirees could stay to the end of their lives. The learning center was opened in 1995 and the latest apartment unit was finished last year.

Goodman said his own life has been the catalyst for interaction among the ages.

``I have a son of my own who is 17. My dad is 80. I love my son and my father a great deal and the times together have really been magical times,″ he said. ``So why not accomplish that for other people?″

At the early childhood learning center there are 103 children, ages 10 weeks to 5 years. The preschool, accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, offers day care and prekindergarten classes. Interaction with seniors is part of the program.

The center is open to staff and the community and costs $130 to $169 a week, depending on age.

Older children get to climb a three-story tree house and learn computer skills in a classroom shaped as a boat. Brightly colored jungle theme murals stimulate the imagination. For younger children there are wagons and pedal cars.

Also on the grounds is a pediatric unit for 29 children, most of whom need skilled, long-term care. The young patients suffer from congenital defects, cerebral palsy and fetal alcohol and shaken baby syndromes.

Goodman plans to add a community center for plays and concerts, cottage industry in gardening and crafts, a bed-and-breakfast for visiting family and friends and a holistic and wellness center.

``It’s fluid. You keep adapting. I don’t think you’re ever done,″ said Goodman, who has worked in the health care industry for 30 years. ``I think it’s about community, not about isolation.″

Nancy Heikin, executive director of Temple University’s Center for Intergenerational Learning, said society today should look at older people not as frail bodies, but as role models. They should be recognized for their tremendous resources and incredible experiences and treated as productive, contributing adults with a wealth to share, she said.

``We tend to have a needs-based mentality,″ she said, adding that people need to recognize that connecting generations strengthens communities.

The challenge is coming, Heikin said. ``We’re looking at 70 million baby boomers coming of age very soon.″

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On the Net:

The Palms of Largo: http://www.thepalmsoflargo.com

Temple University Center for Intergenerational Learning: http://www.temple.edu/cil

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