What better way to breathe life into aged care than with young children. That’s what intergenerational programs are starting to do in Australia.
In an era of dissolving extended families, the new model of bridging generations is testament to their multiple psychological, social and economic benefits.
Dr Catrin Hedd Jones, from Bangor University in the UK, took part in a documentary about six nursery children who were introduced to an adult day care facility for three days.
She said she witnessed some “life affirming interactions” that benefited both the older people and the children, who flourished with the extra attention and opportunity to grow their social and emotional skills.
Increasing numbers of shared care centres have sprung up over the past 20 years in the US. They include a nursing home called ‘The Mount’ in West Seattle, which joins 125 children with 400 residents five days a week.
“We wanted to create a place for people to come to live, not a place for people to come to die,” administrator Charlene Boyd told PBS news hour. Footage shows young children dancing and interacting with the residents, whose faces light up in delight.
Staff and family members say that residents suffering dementia become engaged and lucid during their interactions with the children. They’ve seen some “incredible moments”, as well as enhanced learning for the children.
Over in Japan, a study reported that intergenerational programs with preschool children brought smiles and conversation to older adults.
Meanwhile in Australia
In New South Wales an association holds intergenerational playgroups to support families and strengthen local communities, bringing meaningful engagement and enhanced self-esteem for participants.
But programs that bring together young and old are relatively new in Australia. And they need to be more structured with consistent monitoring and evaluation of outcomes, according to Professor Anneke Fitzgerald from Griffith University.
Her team is trialling two models in older adults living with dementia and 3-5-year-old children – one with aged care and childcare in the same location and one in which the groups take trips to visit each other.
The two generations meet for an hour each week over 16 weeks and engage with each other through shared activities.
Preliminary results are positive, with the children and adults expressing “excitement and joy at being able to interact with each other,” according to Fitzgerald.
Fostering appropriate interactions between young and old takes careful planning and facilitation from trained care staff to help build relationships.
But the possibilities are endless, writes Hedd Jones.
They can range from reading a book to craft activities or dancing together. Musicians aged between 6 and 90 years old in New Jersey play together in an orchestra, while in Massachusetts children and older adults work together on environmental projects.
What’s not to love?
There’s no doubt about the psychological and social benefits of intergenerational connections.
Older adults feel valued with an enriched life purpose; young children benefit from increased knowledge and social interaction, and in the process develop positive perceptions of older people.
The programs could also help alleviate the burgeoning costs of an increasingly older population by lowering running costs and sharing resources.