The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted another pandemic, that of loneliness. Though more prominent among the elderly, it affects all age groups – and not only during a global health crisis. Fortunately, a whole range of exciting and dynamic initiatives are helping to tackle this problem. Intergenerational care is one of these, and it is definitely growing.
United for All Ages is a ‘Think-and-Do Tank’ co-founded by Stephen and Denise Burke which champions intergenerational enterprises. Denise and Stephen support interaction between all ages: “Covid has shown how much we miss mixing and intergenerational interaction. The 2020s will be a decade of reconnection as we recover”.
United for all Ages works with a range of national and local organisations to build communities for all ages. One of these is The Together Project. I spoke to Louise Goulden, its founder and CEO.
Louise points out that intergenerational work is often understood as something that benefits the oldest and youngest generations. However, she clarifies, “Most of the time there is a broad range of ages who benefit. For example, in our Songs & Smiles groups, parents and guardians value interacting with older members of society. It also provides the opportunity for all ages to form new friendships and feel connected to their community”.
Songs and Smiles is a sixty-minute music group for 0-4 years olds, their adults and older people. The groups are designed by experts in the field and aim at being interactive fun for all. The positive effects of having older people in the lives of young children, and vice versa, are vast. Louise shared with me her two favourite examples.
“Alexa attended a session with her few-weeks-old daughter, Iris. They continued to participate in the group for several years. Alexa loved to see Iris interacting in a happy and joyful way with the care home residents. One day when out shopping, Iris saw a group of older women and pointed towards them saying, “Friends!”. She’d never met them before but associated these women with those she had fun with in the group. It’s a really lovely example of developing positive mindsets from a very young age. As well as this, Alexa joined the team as a volunteer and is now employed here”.
Another time that sticks in Louise’s mind was when an elderly woman came in, moving painfully slowly. “She didn't look happy as she sat down. Once the children started arriving and the music began, she seemed to relax. As I was packing things away at the end of the session one of the care home team nudged me and said, 'Look who's left her walker behind!’ She was clearly in a very different mental and physical state to when she arrived.”
The main benefits of Songs and Smiles:
· brings quality of life to older people who may otherwise not encounter the spirit of young children
· reduces loneliness and improves the health of older people
· breaks down the segregation between the youngest and oldest in our communities - older people are seen and interacted with, not invisible
· incorporates staff, parents and carers and volunteers, who are all different ages
· uses music which is well-documented as nurturing well-being for all
The main challenges of running this group:
The most obvious one has been Covid. As Louise points out, “Constantly balancing the risks and rewards of in-person activities has been an ongoing concern. The threat of Covid, of course, has to be considered, but so has the impact on mental health from isolation.”
Another thing to bear in mind with any group work are individual support needs and wishes. These must be respected and responded to at all times. Well-trained and attuned staff are key. The following case studies illustrate this.
“We had one of our older women who had fallen asleep when the children arrived,” says Louise. “She woke mid-way through and was quite disorientated. Her carer responded calmly and helped her leave the room. After taking some time to adjust, she re-joined the session and loved every moment.” What made this work was having the right people on hand to help. This is a critical element of all care initiatives, not only this particular one.
“During another Songs and Smiles session a resident with dementia cried the whole way through. An onlooker could, quite understandably, see this as a worrying or negative experience for that person. However, her carer told the staff that the tears were a release and functioned as a calming and healing process for her.”
The presence of reassuring and sensitive professionals is key to these sessions having positive outcomes.
Louise went on to say how, in her experience, the children seem to take it in their stride when the older people express emotion. “When the lady cried, a dad attending the session with his baby sat and held the lady’s hand for the full session. It was really lovely to watch. I didn't see any of the children get upset or particularly react to it. They just carried on interacting with her and with the format of the session as normal. I think it can often be we grown-ups who get more affected by these things.”
A new project afoot
The Together Project is launching a new initiative, that of Crafting Connections. It involves pairing up children and care home residents to send artwork and letters to each other every month. The intention is to build long-term friendships and understanding of each other. It will also help the children develop creative and literacy skills in a meaningful and real way.
Ageism, loneliness and a phenomenal increase in mental health difficulties are prevalent in our society. In response to these sad truths, United for All Ages recommend that every community should find opportunities for younger and older people to mix and share activities and experiences.
This can only be a progressive and, indeed, critically necessary aim.
Further information and how you can get involved:
This blog about Songs & Smiles groups in Guinness Care properties gives lots of useful insight into the benefits that participants of different age groups experience.
This blog is about another project involving Early Years children - We are Friends