Many people will have heard about Intergenerational care from the Channel 4 TV show, ‘Old people’s homes for 4-year olds’. In this heart-warming show you can watch how relationships are forged, even with a large generational gap. It also emphasises the impact that not only the old people have on the children, by teaching them long forgotten songs and skills but also the impact that the children have on the residents in the home.

Where did it begin?

Intergenerational care began in Japan in 1976, since then it has been taken up in the US, the Netherlands and Canada to name but a few. It has only recently been taken on board in the UK and Australia. The first nursery to step out into the field in the UK were Apples and Honey Nightingale in Wandsworth, southwest London. Since then at least another 40 have been established. It is not only nurseries that are joining up with Care and Nursing homes, some colleges and schools now make it part of their curriculum and volunteering programmes to go along to local homes. United for All Ages published a report on some of the benefits of the care, you can read more here.

As well as Nurseries within Care Homes taking off, recent studies have shown that a huge percentage of Grandparents now look after their grandchildren as the parents cannot afford full time childcare. Most of the research that has been undertaken has looked at how intergenerational contact influences the ageing process regarding grandchild / grandparent contact. Having close family ties throughout age ranges has a wide range of outcomes including; more understanding of elder abuse, positive attitudes to the elderly and more support for policies and regulations that help the older generation.

What are the advantages of Intergenerational living?

Multi-generational living can be advantageous in many aspects, as mentioned above it can help younger people understand what an elderly person is going through, this in turn can help younger people not be so anxious about the ageing process. Having these age ranging connections can help to reduce ageism and stop the stereotypes that are abundant when it comes to the ageing. Having older family members living together, caring for each other could be a simple solution for helping us deal with an ageing population. It is not just about the amount of time that is spent with an older or younger person, it is about the quality of that time spent. This time can lead to more knowledge about ageing, higher job satisfaction and willingness to help older colleagues, increased empathy and a willingness to share information.

With more establishments opening that allow different ages to socialise and bond, the Secretary for Health and Social care Matthew Hancock has backed the idea of nurseries opening within NHS services. He also believes this could be a way for smaller communities who are fighting to keep local hospitals open to have a chance at survival. They can become a centre for all people, young and old to be cared for alongside a range of other services.  

‘I’ve said that the era of the inevitable closure of community hospitals is over because I want community hospitals increasingly to become community health hubs where you have the physios, some of the day cases, the GPs, mental health services and some of the charity-provided services like Aid UK, in some cases, also the nursery, because there’s increasing evidence that if you put services for old people and services for very young people together that you get a better outcome for all of them.’.

What are some of the issues that face intergenerational care?

As with many Health and Social Care programmes, one of the main problems can be funding. Louise Goulden who runs Songs and Smiles, an intergenerational organisation that organises regular visits from local baby and toddler groups to 5 local care homes. Getting the organisation running has been no mean feat. Finding suitable homes, logistics, getting volunteers and training can take a huge amount of time and money. Predictably, funding has been one of the biggest hurdles for Goulden. Songs and Smiles receives a small payment from each of the homes when they have an event and parents pay £1 to attend. Some ventures have used crowdfunding sites to raise funds to get projects off the ground.

Another major issue some projects have faced in the beginning is getting past the red tape that is inevitably in the way. Many have raised concerns over the potential risk to the young children that are visiting elderly people with Dementia. Apples and Honey conducted detailed risk assessments before launching the scheme, they have an in depth study available to view on their website, and residents are screened by staff before each session to assess their temperament on the day.

‘Sometimes I feel we can risk-assess things so much we actually stop doing anything.’ Prof Sarah Harper, an Oxford University gerontologist, points out that these organisations barely scratch the surface of the isolation issue that is facing our elderly; ‘We can learn a lot from them, but I don’t think this is going to be the solution.’

Benefits for the younger generation

The benefits can help innumerably, not only to the elderly but also to the young children who are taking part in the meetings. Children’s confidence improves in the settings as did their vocabulary and social skills. We live in a time-poor society, having people around who have time on their hands to read a story, answer any questions you have about the world and provide a kind environment gives an incredible opportunity to learn.

With a slightly older age range going in to the care homes it gives a sense of purpose and responsibility. There can be numerous stereotypes to any age range, from young to old. By bringing people together you can help to get rid of these stereotypes and grow with them. Talents, skills and experiences from different generations get shared. Suspicion and mistrust can be broken, and stronger understanding forged.

Shifting attitudes and benefits from young visitors

A volunteer from one of the care homes involved, Zena, said:

‘The most important thing in life is to be loved, and children have such a pure and positive love. To find a child’s hand in yours is one of the most moving things that can happen to you.’

In Japan where the idea for intergenerational care began studies have found the residents were not only engaging with the young visitors but also with each other. They were happily engaging in conversations with each other and about the visits they were looking forward to. As well as the mental health and attitudes shifting, the residents often find they forget some of their physical worries when they are with the children, stretching in their chairs, holding hands.

With the increased mental stimulation from the regular visitors, it can help to reduce and decrease loneliness, a huge issue in the elderly sector. Regular social interaction can also delay mental decline, lower blood pressure and in general reduce the risk of disease. As mentioned, age segregation can foster mistrust and misunderstanding, these types of activities can help to increase socialisation, happiness and laughter, a calm, safe environment. Children can grow up with a knowledge of ageing and diseases like dementia.

Can Intergenerational care be the future for the care industry?

It holds its ground and can play a part in the future of care. Will it solve all the care industries concerns and worries? Probably not, but it can certainly provide a hopeful place for people to be. A highlight for many people’s weeks and conversation starters. It can also help save costs, by having two businesses sharing the behind the scenes costs for spaces, electric etc. Everyone wants something to look forward to in their old age and visits from little bundles of happiness and energy could be just the tonic.

Megan Evans

Book-worm and culture-vulture.  Mum to 1 and better half to another. Always thinking about what meal is next.