Mental health

Sometimes you watch a TV programme that sticks with you. For me, this has to include the first series of Channel 4’s Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds, a two-parter that originally aired in 2017. During the series, we got to witness two generations blossoming in one another’s company after a group of lively little pre-schoolers were unleashed into a quiet Bristol retirement home.

At the end of the six-week experiment, which involved a wide range of daily shared activities such as crafts, dancing, meals and even a sports day, the older residents were happier, stronger, more confident, and more mobile — this compared with the sad reality of the initial pre-experiment findings: of the original 10 pensioners participating, a third exhibited some signs of depression; nine out of 10 found life unexciting; half felt hopeless for the future; and all but one were at risk of falling.

With chronic loneliness affecting more than a million older people in the UK — and a link between loneliness and increased risk of dementia — surely such community initiatives should be spread far and wide?

As one of the older residents participating in the TV series so eloquently put it: “This activity has drawn me out of my semi-sleep; I’ve come more into who I know I am as a person, and that was the result of meeting these affectionate, lively, lovely little children…”

Or, as another pointed out: “Being with these children is like having a shot of adrenaline, which bucked us all up.”

Even fostering relationships between grandparents and children has huge benefits. A 2016 study showed that grandparents who babysat their grandchildren had a 37% lower mortality risk than adults of the same age with no care-giving duties. Of course, not everyone is lucky enough to have grandparents, and those who do might not live near them, which is why community initiatives are so vital.

Benefits for all

Whilst much of the focus of intergenerational projects has been on the benefits for older people — from improving health and care to tackling loneliness — there are big benefits for the younger generation, too.

One study of more than 1,500 children showed that those with a high level of grandparental involvement had fewer emotional and behavioural problems; and a 2019 report by think tank United for All Ages suggested that greater interaction between old and young could help tackle crises facing the next generation — from poor health, anxiety and loneliness — and can help boost confidence, skills and opportunities, whilst changing attitudes towards ageing.4

Such benefits were highlighted in a second series of Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds, aired in 2018; after spending three months playing and interacting with older adults five days a week, the children had made notable progress in terms of language, empathy, confidence and social skills.

Such are the potential benefits of intergenerational connections, the United for All Ages report called on every nursery and school, every children’s and young people’s organisation and every local authority to link with older people’s care and housing providers, volunteers and organisations, and to mobilise together for the next generation. In a separate report from the Stanford Center of Longevity, USA, the authors also pointed out that our ageing population has distinctive qualities to meet the needs of youth — not only do they have wisdom and experience, they also have time and patience.

“Older adults are exceptionally suited to meet these needs in part because they welcome meaningful, productive activity and engagement,” the authors write. “They seek — and need — purpose in their lives.”

Although intergenerational care is yet to become mainstream practice in the UK, there is a growing number of initiatives that connect the generations with the aim of enhancing lives and wellbeing. The message is pretty simple: age is no barrier to friendship, and these friendships can have surprising benefits for both the old and young — and every age in between.

Benefits of intergenerational play for children:

  • Positive progress in language skills
  • Building confidence
  • Increasing empathy towards others
  • Development of social skills

Benefits of intergenerational play for seniors:

  •  Improvements in physical strength
  • A sense of belonging
  • Engagement with community
  • A sense of purpose

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