1219 GMT February 24, 2020
Research by the Intergenerational Foundation — a charitable UK-based think tank established to promote fairness between generations — has found that only 5 percent of older people in England and Wales now live near someone under 18, whereas 15 percent did so 25 years ago, theguardian.com wrote.
So the idea of intergenerational care — where children and older people come together to sing, play or just chat — seems to have much to recommend it.
Studies claim this type of interaction can decrease older people’s loneliness, delay mental decline, lower blood pressure and even reduce the risk of disease or death. But, at heart, the benefit of almost any interaction between young and old is self-evident, according to Lesley Carter, clinical lead at charity Age UK.
“I have seen it so often, when a child touches the hand of somebody who is perhaps very withdrawn, and not really speaking and all of a sudden that person is alive,” said Carter.
“It’s really humbling.”
However, evidence for successful outcomes remains largely anecdotal and, partly because their growth has been driven mainly from the bottom up, funding for these programs is often short-term and uncertain.
Professor Sarah Harper, an Oxford University gerontologist, pointed out that these initiatives are very small-scale and barely scratch the surface of the problem of social isolation: “We can learn a lot from them, but I don’t think this is going to be the solution.”
Intergenerational care started in Japan in the 1970s and was soon enthusiastically adopted in many other countries, including the US and Australia. The UK was slower off the mark, but there has been a rapid expansion in the past two years, inspired in part by the hit Channel 4 show ‘Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds’, which has just completed a second series.
United for All Ages, a think tank that focuses on intergenerational work, said between 30 and 40 projects are now up and running around the country, most of which involve care homes linking up with nurseries or primary schools. Many more are in the pipeline, and director Stephen Burke predicts there will be more than 500 within five years.
The model of engagement can range from occasional, informal visits to settings where two organizations share premises, enabling children and residents to interact every day.
The best-known example in the UK is the Apples and Honey nursery in Wandsworth, south London, which was purpose-built within the grounds of the 200-bed Nightingale House care home. Children (and care workers) take part with residents in daily activities such as singing, storytelling and playing games.
The project has been running for a year and, the co-founder, Ali Somers, said the results have been eye-opening.
“There’s something about having children on site which makes residents feel more human and gives them permission to care about others. It boosts their confidence and feeling of self-worth.”
Many people with dementia seem to thrive in this environment. Somers recalls one very withdrawn resident who “became much more communicative with the baby and toddler group and, after coming to a singalong, took the song over and began to lead. There are many of these mini-awakenings”.
Other schemes include regular get-togethers between school pupils and older people with dementia and depression in east London; weekly visits by preschool groups to care homes in Torbay; and a linkup between Augusta Court care home in Chichester — part of the Anchor group — and a neighboring nursery, run by national organization Busy Bees. Discussions are already underway about replicating this model elsewhere in the country.
Lorraine George, childcare development worker with Torbay Council, who spent a month last year looking at intergenerational schemes in the US, came across many success stories: “Each one of these anecdotes describes real change to one person’s life, but, for some reason, we don’t value that as much as data and statistics,” she said.
The benefits are not only felt by the older people — George noted how children’s confidence also improved in these settings, as did their vocabulary and socialization.
“All the parents I spoke to felt their children had learned so much from the elderly residents,” she said.
“We’re so time-poor as a society, so to be surrounded by people who have an unlimited amount of time to read with you and answer all your questions and offer unconditional love provides an incredible opportunity to learn.”
Other benefits included greater job satisfaction among staff, improved recruitment and retention, happier relatives and stronger links with the surrounding community.
In most US cases the care home and kindergarten or school were located together, often developing from economic or logistical necessity, since local schools were expanding and care homes had space on their hands. The UK is beginning to face similar issues.
“In Torbay we have care homes that are not full and nurseries that are overflowing,” said George.
“It makes sense to team up and share some of the back-office costs.”
Another abiding problem is funding. One scheme, the Together Project, which has had success in northeast London, needed crowdfunding to get going, and, even then, one of its flagship projects ground to a halt after a year because the home closed down. Age UK’s analysis of international schemes suggests they often founder if there is an imbalance in numbers between young and old or if one group feels at a disadvantage to the other.
Some observers also express concern about safeguarding, including the potential risk posed to young children by care home residents with dementia — the majority in most homes these days. Organizers say they take this issue extremely seriously and follow rigorous safeguarding measures laid down by regulatory bodies.
Somers says Apples and Honey conducted detailed risk assessments before launching its scheme and that residents are screened by staff before sessions and will never be left unsupervised with a child. School field-trip rules apply every time children leave the nursery.
While accepting the importance of risk assessment, however, George feels it can be used as an excuse for inaction.
“Sometimes I feel we can risk-assess things so much we actually stop doing anything.”
Somers’s advice to anyone thinking about an intergenerational project is to go ahead, no matter how small the idea, because all interactions have an impact. As George put it: “This is not rocket science and it’s not hard to do. And when you see it in action you think: ‘Why on Earth wouldn’t you do this?’.”