Raising expectations in intergenerational interventions – should we?

This was the question posed by Dr Melrose Stewart MBE at the most recent CACHE conferences which brought together social care and early years practitioners

National Intergenerational Week  (23rd – 29th March)  is all about celebrating those moments and places where different age groups come together for a shared benefit.

We understand during these times of uncertainty and challenge, interacting with others, especially older people who may be more vulnerable, is not advised. However, it is in these trying times that we see more than ever the value of intergenerational connectivity, and how interdependent our society truly is. We all need each other now more than ever, and therefore National Intergenerational Week could not come at a more appropriate time. 

The current situation does however pose some difficult dilemmas in relation to intergenerational care. How do we bridge the gap between the generations without putting the most vulnerable at risk? How do we stop loneliness at a time when we are being directed to eliminate unnecessary contact with the elderly in our society? How do we ensure our young people who are struggling the most to make sense of the strange times we find ourselves in, don’t miss out on the vital comfort, guidance and perspective that only our older generations can provide?

Dr Stewart shared findings from an experiment that took place during Channel 4’s Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds.

Dr Stewart explained how, a nursery was built in two retirement homes, on separate occasions; one of which was in the largest retirement villages in the UK. Participant ages ranging from 3 to 102, it was an experiment to see what the young and the old could learn from each other.

Experts on the show, including Dr Stewart, measured a range of factors before the experiment began. In the elderly, they measured both physical activity such as balance and speed, but more importantly mental health measures, including anxiety and depression. They also carried out a range of tests on the young, from communication to wellbeing.

Bringing generations together to achieve positive outcomes

The activities that took place next were truly heart-warming to see, from dancing and reading to basketball and sports day – the way the generations interacted was incredible, but not as incredible as the results from the experiment.

Dr Stewart reported how the young children were lucky enough to gain second grandparents, they developed increased empathy and understanding of older people which challenged typical stereotypes. Communication and language skills were enhanced through the one to one time they spent with their elder counterparts in different learning environments to what they were used to.

For the elderly, the programme and increased activity enhanced their sense of belonging, self-esteem and wellbeing, not to mention decreasing their social isolation significantly. Younger people helped to recreate a family atmosphere and create a sense of purpose. It was evident throughout the experiment the children improved the spirits and energy of the older people, making them feel like they wanted to be more active.

For both generations empathy, respect, companionship and so much more were created thanks to the Channel 4 programme.

How cautious should we be?

Supported by research, Dr Stewart explained how intergenerational interventions need to be planned and managed carefully. She reminded us that not all older people will enjoy the company of youths, or enjoy the types of activities that are on offer – a lot of older people may not like noise caused by young children and the interruption of a peaceful existence.

In addition, Dr Stewart explained that along with a number of other potential risks, it is important to keep in mind that sudden lack of presence of a person with whom a path of sharing has been established, can result in experiencing a sense of loss. Therefore, if intergenerational interventions are put into practice – they must be done with care, thought and consideration of the future.

In the current climate, how do we support intergenerational connectivity while still safeguarding the vulnerable?

To answer this questions we must challenge ourselves to be creative, find practical solutions and strive to make full use of the tools around us. Here are a few simple but inventive examples of intergenerational connectivity thriving within the challenging environment that we find ourselves in:

  • Use an app such as Zoom or FaceTime so that children can video call elderly relatives or family friends.
  • Set up a group message on WhatsApp to communicate regularly, you can share photos, videos and voice recordings to keep each other updated.
  • Use a variety of apps to read stories, play games and even draw together online. For example, ‘Together’ is one of these apps which offers playful and educational activities to help create a bond despite distance. The app will be free to download for the next few weeks to help families in these difficult times.
  • If you’re looking for activities to do whilst your children are out of school, you could encourage them to write letters, draw pictures and create arts and crafts to send grandparents or local care homes.
  • Pick up the phone and call people who may be lonely during these times, a simple chat over the phone offering social contact and support can go a long way in brightening someone’s day.

Intergenerational Week is a time for everyone to get involved, wherever you are and whatever your age.

Making a difference

We recently worked with Brambles Childcare Centre to celebrate the inspiring difference early years practitioners make to the lives of individuals. Brambles often visit the local care home so the children and the elderly can play and learn together. You can find out more about this, and how it can be implemented in different settings, by watching ‘The Difference I Make featuring Brambles’.

Get involved on social media and join us as we say no to the age gap #IntergenerationalWeek