There have been few documentaries I’ve enjoyed as much as Channel 4’s ‘Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds’. For me it ticked every box - it featured some amazing older people (the oldest was 102) and pre-school children (the youngest was 3), it looked at ageing, social care, healthcare, education and child development, it demonstrated innovation combined with scientific rigour, and best of all, it featured some really positive outcomes for the older people and the children involved.
It’s no surprised I loved the programme given the 9 years my dad spent in care homes, the work I do now with older people and those who provide care and support for them, and as a mum to a preschooler, my current immersion in the world of early years education.
The seed for my enthusiasm for intergenerational work was sown watching my dad light up whenever children visited other residents in his care home. Sadly though, the time many of these children spent in the home was brief and their visits sporadic, so my dad never really had the chance to fully benefit from their presence, unlike the 10 older people featured in Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds.
In our household, this documentary was particularly timely - in the weeks it aired we were settling our daughter into pre-school. It hasn’t been the easiest transition for her, but I am absolutely certain given her relationship with my mum (who is 79), that had she had the option to go into an early-years educational establishment that meant she shared her pre-school time with older people she would have settled a lot quicker.
The synergies for me don’t end there either. In an attempt to help our daughter settle into pre-school life I made her a memory book, which I’m gradually filling up with photos of all the adventures that we’ve had this year. A memory book for an (almost) 3-year-old - They are for older people (and people living with dementia) right? Wrong! They are amazing at every age and stage of life, and the book has been phenomenal for our daughter. It's given her pages of lovely familiar photos to comfort her and prompt her to talk about her adventures, and it's enabled her teachers to get to know her so much quicker and easier.
In essence, we are actually informally running our own mini intergenerational experiment in our house. My mum lives with us, and although I don't have scientists or experts measuring the effects of this for our daughter and my mum, I can informally categorically say that our daughter’s communication, reading, interactions and skills-set have benefitted so much from extensive time with her Granny, and for my mum, our daughter has physically and mentally challenged her, kept her going and brought so much joy, excitement and unpredictability into her life.
If my mum was living alone she would have had none of this, and would have been much more isolated and potentially lonely, as many of her peers sadly are. Meanwhile for our daughter, with the best will in the world, she would never have had as many books read to her or enjoyed so many other little learning experiences without Granny around every day.
So, what do we learn from Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds and my own domestic life? For me it’s that keeping generations in silos is so outdated. I’m not saying that arrangements like those shown on Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds would work for every older person or indeed every preschooler. Some older people wouldn't want that level of noise, interaction and energy around them. Equally, some preschoolers may prefer to only be with their peers or adults of their parent’s age.
But there needs to be much more choice for everyone who would benefit. Older people who would like to interact with preschoolers could find a new purpose in life, teaching and supporting children to learn, and keeping themselves physically and mentally active into the bargain. Meanwhile preschoolers, who may have busy working parents and live long distances from their own grandparents, could benefit from the patience and time less hurried older people may be able to provide. And that, of course, is to say nothing of the exchange of wisdom that would be happening.
For those with a less practical, romantic vision who are only interested in hard facts, muse on this. Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds showed significant physical and mental improvements in the older people over the 3-months of this experiment, all of which could potentially cut the costs associated with their health and care needs. Examples included:
- 102-year-old Sylvia going from being classed as frail at the beginning of the experiment to being no longer classed as frail at the end of the 3-months. Sylvia's cognitive health tests also improved by +3 points.
- 97-year-old Victor improved his depression score by +3.
- 81-year-old Lavinia went from taking 495 steps per day to 1750 later in the experiment, and this despite a fall during the 3-months.
- 5/10 improved their balance.
- 9/10 improved their grip strength (an indicator of overall health).
- Almost half of the volunteers reduced their risk of falling.
The children also showed improvements, including the youngest child, Zach, improving his personal and social interactions and use of language, and Mason improving his sense of what it means to be an older person and developing his ability to nurture and be empathetic. Indeed, such is the impact of this experiment that The ExtraCare Charitable Trust, who run Lark Hill Retirement Village where Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds was filmed, have committed to a lasting legacy for the project that will see a rolling six week intergenerational activity programme for Lark Hill residents and children from its neighbouring nurseries.
I can see so many positives in intergenerational approaches, and in the 6+ years I’ve done the work I do now I don’t think anything has excited me as much as the potential for bringing the older and younger generations together. The possibilities seem almost endless to my eager brain which is desperate to see new initiatives for the youngest and oldest in our society.
I feel we have become very stale, very staid, in our approaches to supporting people at the polar opposites of the age spectrum and it saddens me. For older people, they don’t necessarily have years to wait to get the care and support that they need, to alleviate their loneliness, to give them purpose and a reason to live the best life that they can. And for our youngest citizens, their brains are alive with possibility and opportunity, just waiting for us to ignite their imagination and feed them with the facts about anything and everything that makes up the world we live in.
For me there is no time to waste. No ifs, no buts. I’m proud that in our own little way through our domestic life that we are doing this as a family, but I would love to hear from any individuals or organisations who want to do intergenerational work like that shown on Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds at scale. For our older and younger citizens, let’s make this happen!
Until next time...
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