Making connections across the ages – the mutual benefits of intergenerational contact

The benefits of so-called ‘intergenerational care’ are fairly well documented, and a documentary series by Channel Four in 2017, Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds, was so popular that they made another one that was screened last October.  

There are also plenty of examples of children being taken into care or nursing homes and having a really positive effect on the elderly residents there – and there’s also evidence to show the advantages work the other way round too.

One care home in Worthing has decided to introduce its own form of this intergenerational contact, with pre-schoolers aged three to four going in to visit residents once a week.

Melrose Care Home, which is owned by Louise Bruce, has become a weekly play area for seven children from Woodstock Day Nursery, owned by early years teacher Anne Shrieves.

Every week, two members of staff take the children on the bus to the care home, where they play colourful games like Connect Four or make huge paintings with whichever residents are in the mood for play that day.

Caring4Sussex went along one week to join in the fun.

“They don’t seem to notice we’re different from them, and they seem to like coming here,” says 98-year-old resident John, a former international banker who has three children of his own and three grandchildren. “I am used to young children and I like reading to them – they seem to enjoy it.”

“The children all talk about it afterwards, and they soon start asking when they’re going to go again,” says Vicky, deputy manager at Woodstock Day Nursery.

“It’s completely different now. When they first came, they huddled together, not quite sure what they were supposed to do, feeling shy. But now they come in, throw off their coats and just get straight on with playing with the residents.

“It’s wonderful for them – getting here on the bus gives them something to talk about, and they make connections with other things in their lives.

“Some of them don’t have grandparents so this kind of gives them contact with older people that they don’t always get. Sometimes, if the residents aren’t feeling very well one day, they might not come out of their rooms – but it doesn’t matter to the children.”

At first, she says, some of the parents were dubious – but once they heard such positive reports from the children who were going, they all signed up for it.

“There is research that it’s really beneficial, particularly with the elderly,” says Lou Bruce. “It helps them to put their lives in context. Rather than being focused on their old age and end of life, it reminds them of the circle of life. You can’t help but see the benefits.

“It’s good for both – sometimes the residents read to them, which encourages early literacy, and you can see that it really gives the residents a lift.”

Fun and games between the generations

A sentiment backed up by 100-year-old resident Doreen, who had been feeling rather down in the dumps until the children arrived and began cheating at Connect Four with her.

And it’s not just pre-schoolers who visit the home. Worthing High sends pupils doing their Duke of Edinburgh Award, and Bruce says the interaction there is really valuable – not only do the high school pupils find out about the lives of their older friends, the residents also take great interest in how the lives of today’s teenagers are so different from theirs.

Chances 4 Change

In East Sussex the charity 3VA, which is funded by local councils and East Sussex County Council, has a number of intergenerational schemes already in place under the project ‘Chances4Change’. It brings together different organisations and gives information and advice to them on setting up similar intergenerational schemes.

It has published a guide – Intergenerational Opportunities – Supporting an Intergenerational Project – which is available to anyone thinking of starting one.

Jo Wunsch is the community development officer with Chances 4 Change.

“We work with communities and neighbourhoods in several areas in Eastbourne,” she told C4S. “Lots of people were interested in intergenerational work – both in care homes and in local schools. We did it with years eight and nine from the local secondary school who were working on a history and memories project, and it helped them develop questions around themes.

“In another project we took younger children in, and they did more outdoor activities and things like painting. The sounds brought so much life and energy to the care home that the teacher from the after-school club started bringing children every week, so the project is now running on its own.

“The children enjoy it so much and the contact is really meaningful. If anything, the younger children seem to get more out of it because they’re not so shy, but we found that children who were quite withdrawn had a great time and seemed to just change, leaving all their worries behind them.”

In 2017 Age UK published a study by researchers at the University of Kent. Making intergenerational connections: What are they, why do they matter and how to make more of them, by Lisbeth Drury, Dominic Abrams and Hannah J. Swift with the Centre for the Study of Group Processes, found that the benefits included better attitudes towards older people, less stereotyping and less anxiety about ageing.

The study did emphasise that certain conditions needed to be met for greater success, like equal numbers of people with different ages, frequent contact, activities that require co-operation, shared goals and encouraging the groups to learn about each other as individuals. None of which concerns Maisie, one of the four-year-olds from Woodstock Day Nursery, as she beats Melrose resident Doreen again at Connect Four – with just a little bit of harmless cheating to help her.

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