CASE STUDY: How intergenerational projects are alleviating loneliness and ill health

Access Group – Steve Sawyer Headshots cropped

With National Intergenerational Week taking place at the end of this month (March 21-23) Steve Sawyer, managing director of The Access Group’s health and social care division, discusses the success of Teaching Forgotten Skills, a campaign which has brought young and old people together, and got experts talking about the potential benefits of these projects.

A partnership between The Access Group, The Uplands care home and The Wilfred Owen School, in Shrewsbury, Teaching Forgotten Skills was devised to explore how residents and pupils could benefit from time spent together.

The idea behind the project was to give the older generation an opportunity to share skills and stories, perhaps for the first time in years, which could be forgotten by future generations. Children are naturally curious too, and the six-year-olds were fascinated by what they learned from the care home residents.

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Skills shared by the residents included rotary dial phones, map reading, knitting and gardening. While technology has rendered some of these items, like the phone, redundant, there is still value in being able to mend your own clothes or find your way home if the sat-nav fails.

The project sparked the imagination of young and old alike and we wanted to highlight the pressures on the care system that stem from an ageing population and the fact that families often live in different parts of the country.

With care workers generally time-pressed, it showed how members of the wider community could also make a positive contribution to residents’ lives.

Loneliness in the Elderly

There’s evidence to suggest that intergenerational relationships bring social and cognitive benefits to elderly people, and more and more care providers, including home care businesses such as Caremark, are building this approach into their activity planning. But what are these benefits and do they really stack up? 

Loneliness can affect anyone at any age, but older people, who may have faced loss, and who tend to be afflicted by ill health and mobility problems, are particularly susceptible. Linked to depression, loneliness can be detrimental to both their mental and physical health – to the extent that research equates it to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

With this in mind, it makes sense for care organisations to make tackling loneliness a key focus. Just as care workers provide personal assistance, meals and medication, so too can they improve quality of life for residents with social interactions that stimulate their mind.

Tackling Dementia Care

Dr Jennie Ferrell, senior lecturer in Developmental Psychology at the University of the West of England added her voice to the Teaching Forgotten Skills project. An advocate of intergenerational relationships, she said that playing games and singing songs from the past can ‘trigger’ memories for dementia patients as they remember their own childhood or experiences as a parent.

Intergenerational contact is a powerful way to alleviate loneliness, and whether or not an individual has dementia, these relationships bring joy to an older person and improves their quality of life. They may even have fewer care needs compared to someone who is suffering from loneliness and ill health. 

Another expert consulted during the campaign was dementia expert Dr Chris Knifton, an Admiral Nurse and associate professor at De Montfort University. He said intergenerational working “is a way for people with dementia to build new connections, increase cognitive stimulation and potentially improve emotional wellbeing”.

Indeed, he believes all people receiving care should have neuro-cognitive and dementia care plans in place to stabilise and improve cognitive skills, function and ability. This could be achieved by regular interaction and activities with different people of all ages.

What about the Children?

We should remember that this project did not only bring benefits to residents at The Uplands – it was also an opportunity for children to learn new skills and spend time with older people. Some of these, as mentioned earlier, may only have novelty value, but others are still useful. Gardening and knitting, for example, encourage us to be creative and provide much-needed respite from screens.

Furthermore, projects like Teaching Forgotten Skills teach soft skills and support better mental health, so says Alistair Bryce Clegg, a former infant school headteacher and early years consultant. He worked on the popular television series, Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds, and over the course if the show, saw anxiety levels among children drop significantly, as well as a dramatic improvement in vocabulary and empathy.

This campaign is a reminder that many older people have led rich lives, from witnessing historic events like VE Day to working in industries that have now all but disappeared in the UK. One of the residents who took part was in the army and worked on the railways, while another was a nurse.

Intergenerational Week

It is hoped that this campaign will sow the seeds for better intergenerational relationships in the future. Intergenerational Week is a big opportunity for care providers to try out this approach and see if it works for them, and their service users.

Tags : intergenerational care
Sarah Clarke

The author Sarah Clarke

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