The world is made up of old souls and the young at heart – what if we were to combine the two?

It’s a concept called “intergenerational learning” that’s been trialled in the United States where two of our most vulnerable age groups have been successfully integrated.

The Intergenerational Learning Centre in West Seattle has placed a child care facility right in the middle of an aged care centre and the results have surprised everyone involved.

Residents with advanced dementia have suddenly become lucid and engaged when chatting to the toddlers, possibly due to the interactions triggering memories of raising their own children.

Young and old share meals, craft and music sessions in a common area where residents can choose how much, if at all, they want to participate.

But would this mixed care model work here in Australia? “Probably”, is the view of industry professionals from both ends of the care spectrum.


Does it work for the elderly?

Karen Ferris has been a nurse for more than 40 years and specialises in the care of the elderly.  She says combining the two age groups would have a lot of benefits.

“The elderly really love children – time and time again you see the difference it makes when a small child comes into an aged care facility. They really are mesmerised by them – it really takes them to a good place.”

Doll therapy is commonly used in facilities specialising in dementia care, where residents are given life sized baby dolls to hold and take care of.  Nursing staff say the bonding is evident and when they try to remove the doll at meal times, they are often met with resistance.

Ms Ferris feels extending the doll program to have children interacting with the elderly would be a vast improvement on the current model, as long as there were stringent guidelines.

“Obviously you would need to make sure it is safe for all parties involved.  Supervision is the key to ensuring this would work,” she says.

She is quick to point out there would be a number of potential hazards when mixing the elderly with energetic toddlers – and a risk assessment would need to be done to minimise the problems.

“The risk of tripping is a big one, along with damage to already fragile skin. There is also a reasonable risk of the aged contracting illness from the youngsters which could be devastating to weak immune systems,” she says.

Ms Ferris felt these problems were manageable, however, with the correct controls in place such as restricting access to the program for anyone feeling unwell; ensuring the elderly stay put when youngsters are moving around.

Assuming the risks could be minimised, one of the key outcomes of the program for the elderly would be helping to make them feel useful.

“A lot of the aged just feel stuck in a facility and get bored very easily – the addition of children would help break up the monotony and could make them feel more vital, especially if their helping the kids to read,” says Ms Ferris.


Would it work for the children?

According to Paul Mondo, President of the Australian Childcare Alliance, parents would generally be supportive of such a program, as long as it was appropriately managed.

“Any opportunity for young children to engage in the broader community will help to deliver good outcomes.”

He felt the children could learn a lot from the elderly while helping to enrich the lives of the aged.

This view is supported by one of Australia’s largest childcare providers, Goodstart Early Learning Centres.  Queensland State Manager Dr Lesley Jones says many of their centres already have regular reciprocal visits with nearby aged care facilities and any programme which extends that interaction would be mutually beneficial.

While Dr Jones acknowledges intergenerational learning facilities are an innovative concept, she admits Goodstart is not planning to jump on board just yet.

“While we aren’t looking at this model at the moment… the overseas trials will be interesting to assess while considering the regulatory requirements of both sectors.”

So, in the short term, while the concept of combining ages is embraced, the reality is there is a lot of red tape to cut through and boxes to tick before a joint facility can ever be close to a possibility in Australia.


In Australia

Encouragingly, though, there are some players quietly chipping away at resistance in the background. Playgroup Victoria has been a long-time supporter of mixing age groups. For the past 10 years, they have been holding a fortnightly get-together for babies and toddlers, carers and elderly residents at Geelong’s Bupa Bellarine Aged Care Centre. With the help of activity staff at the centre, residents plan and prepare the weekly activities which can include writing stories to read to the children, singing songs or on one occasion making a fairy garden.

Initially there was resistance from some parents fearing a sterile environment and from the elderly concerned the children would run wild, but those misconceptions quickly disappeared as three generations came together to play.

As is the case with the facility in the United States, staff here have noticed a big change in dementia patients who interact with the children.  A study compiled by centre staff gave examples of residents who were transformed from “flat” and “wandering” to “100% involved” when the children were on site.

Parents of the young participants have also observed their children now seem more comfortable in the wider community around people in wheelchairs or with special needs.

While this isn’t a permanent intergenerational centre, its success does seem to suggest a more formalised structure could also work. But this would rely on a more forward thinking approach than is the norm in aged care in Australia. Until then, we are potentially doing a disservice to our young by denying them regular interactions with the elderly, while at the same time preventing many from experiencing a new lease on life in their latter years.


In Europe

In Europe, there’s actually a European Map of Intergenerational Learning (EMIL), which is a collaborative network of members working together to support intergenerational learning taking place across Europe.

If you know more stories of intergenerational learning, feel free to contribute in the comments below!


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