Henry Becker of Ellicott City regained a part of his childhood recently as he watched a group of toddlers sing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and play Ring Around the Rosie.
"It makes you feel young again," said Mr. Becker, an 84-year-old resident at Bon Secours Extended Care Facility in Ellicott City.
As part of a program called Story Time, children ranging from infants to preschoolers, along with their parents, visit senior citizens at Bon Secours and at Columbia's Lorien Nursing Home and Winter Growth Adult Day Care.
For the past four years, the program has forged a connection between senior citizens and children through storybooks, games and songs.
"It's a twofold effect," said Lucille Barnum, program founder. "It has enabled kids to not see handicaps or disabilities."
And for senior citizens, "it evokes memories of when they had small children."
Intergenerational programs, such as Story Time, are becoming increasingly important in a society where children in far-flung extended families may have limited contact with their elderly relatives.
Such programs also come at a time when the county's elderly population is on the increase.
According to the 1990 census, about 16,700 senior citizens lived in Howard County, and that number is expected to grow to 25,700 by the year 2000.
"It exposes a lot of young kids to older people," said Nell Boynton, director of the Florence Bain Senior Center in Columbia.
"It gives them a chance to interact with older people," Ms. Boynton said.
Such programs also help dispel stereotypes, showing children that "all old people aren't mean, crotchety ladies," Ms. Boynton said.
At Bon Secours one afternoon last week, a group of residents watched a half-dozen children fling footballs to one another, run and fall down, and sing "The Itsy Bitsy Spider."
"They're adorable," said resident Constance Bruder, 82, of Baltimore, as she watched a little boy in blue coveralls race around in the multipurpose room.
"They remind me of my great-grandchildren," she said.
"I want to take them home," said Pat Diehlmann, 58, of Ellicott City, who has seven grandchildren of her own, ranging in age from five to 17. "I like kids, the way they act, what they do."
Smiles emerged on residents' faces as they watched the children play.
Some reached out to touch the youngsters from their wheelchairs. And at the end of the hourlong program, children and adults shared hugs and kisses.
For many senior citizens, the program offers a chance for some all-too-rare physical affection.
"When you get older, you don't get to touch, hug or cuddle," said Maria Anuszewski, Bon Secours activities director.
Children also benefit from the visit.
Maureen Romano of Ellicott City has been taking her son and daughter to the program for the past two years.
"Their grandparents are out of town and I wanted them to relate well with older people," Ms. Romano said.
Apparently the visits are working. Once, after her children, Alison and Aaron, had visited their grandparents for a week, Ms. Romano heard nothing but praise.
"They were really impressed," she said, referring to the grandparents. For Patty Waltner of Columbia, visiting nursing homes is a family custom that began when she was a child.
"My Mom did it with us," Ms. Waltner said. Now, she and her 2 1/2 -year-old son, Michael, visit the elderly.
"The same thing that stimulates older people also stimulates young children," she said.
Senior citizens at the Florence Bain center, meanwhile, take part a similar program with older students from nearby Harper's Choice Middle School.
The youngsters visit individually with senior citizens and volunteer as waiters at the center. Senior citizens visit the school share their memories of the Great Depression and other historical events.
"It helps each to understand the other," Ms. Boynton said.
Ms. Boynton said she expects to see a narrowing in the generation gap as the county gains more senior citizens, giving children more exposure to the elderly.
"The more education we have about each other, I don't see how it could hurt," she said.