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How intergenerational interaction can rejuvenate elderly care

By Atlan Nguyen

Mental health issues are becoming increasingly common amongst the elderly, casting a shadow over the most vulnerable victims. 

My grandmother was one of them. She suffered serious depression in her mid-70s, once her grandchildren were old enough for school, undermining the need for her daily babysitting service.

A retired teacher in Vietnam, she experienced both life in a French colony as well as the war against America. She now spends her days translating books, doing yoga and learning the piano – all activities that in her own words are supposed to “protect my mind from the ghost named dementia”.

Unfortunately, however, such an active and ordered mind can still be affected by loneliness.

Most of us are likely to experience this distressing problem in some shape or form and unfortunately it seems that traditionally ‘mindful’ activities are not as successful a barrier as once thought. That begs the question: how can you deal with social isolation outside of the conventional approach?

Age UK research has shown that most people over 65 regard themselves as a burden to society. But if we can change our perspective, and see the elderly as a resource and not a burden, then the benefits are clear for both parties.

Photo by Atlan Nguyen

Judith Ish-Horowicz, founder of Apples and Honey Nightingale, the UK’s first intergenerational nursery and care home, has seen this first-hand.

Growing up in a traditional Jewish family, many of Judith’s paternal relatives, including her grandparents, were Auschwitz victims. She also never had a chance to meet her maternal grandparents before they passed away. That resulted in an unfamiliarity with the older generation.

“More importantly, it granted them a sense of security because they know where they fit in the cycle of life.” 

It was not until she got married and had children of her own that she was able to observe the importance of intergenerational relationships. “It enriched their life and made them the people they are today,” she said. “More importantly, it granted them a sense of security because they know where they fit in the cycle of life.”

Having already run a nursery which visited care homes regularly, she decided to go one step further and bring the two together permanently. Taking up a plot in the Nightingale Hammerson care home in the London Borough of Wandsworth, which houses more than 170 residents, she created the Apples and Honey Nightingale house.

The newly combined facility was helped financially by parents from her first nursery, many of whom are now board members as they all believed so strongly in her vision for Intergenerational care.

It was described last year by Stephen Burke, director of the think tank United for All Ages, as somewhere that “brings older and younger people together, benefiting them and other generations”.

Photo by Atlan Nguyen

So how does this model benefit both parties? On the gloomy morning of my visit, the door opened into an almost fairy-tale-like atmosphere. Laughter from all ages accompanied the melodious singing of Shir Shalom and the jingling of bells.

A combined team of doctors and physiotherapists have developed a number of shared activities between the children and elderly. Singing sessions, for example, provide heartwarming moments, as elderly residents started remembering lyrics from their youth. Physical exercise sessions also provide an indisputable boost to the residents’ motivation and activity levels.

“I often go for fresh air walks in the garden and the little ones love to sit on my Cadillac and ask for a drive” as she pointed to her walking frame.

Another firm favourite are the cooking classes. ”Apart from having a good portion of the dough on our laps, in our hair, on the ceiling, and some uncooked dough tasting, we had the jolliest time,” one resident told me.

Fay Garcia, another resident, said: “I often go for fresh air walks in the garden and the little ones love to sit on my Cadillac and ask for a drive,” as she pointed to her walking frame.

Garcia, now 91, lost her partner in the horror of World War II and never had any children. She never thought that she would do things like bottle-feed toddlers and teach numbers when she enrolled four years ago.

“I think it benefits all of us greatly. You know how care homes are, most of us tend to slowly give up our life forces.” But the children make them feel young and purposeful again. Garcia also explained that one of the best experiences is getting to know the children’s parents too. “The rapport here really makes me feel like I now have a massive family with multiple children and grandchildren.”

“The concept of intergenerational care is so wonderful and efficient, yet very simple,” she added. 

Photo by Atlan Nguyen

The interactions do not just benefit the elderly. One clear positive is that it helps to give children a sense of empathy and respect towards the older generation.

“I describe Apple and Honey Nightingale as a place that can really make a childhood,” one parent said. 

One report titled How intergenerational interaction improves life chance of children and young people found that this care model boosts children’s reading and social skills, which in turn aids their language development. 

“One of our staff who has his child in the nursery shared a lovely story: being a committed Christian family, they say prayer every night, but he was put out when his daughter always insisted to pray for her old friends at the care home first,” Judith said. 

As a result of these benefits, this type of environment is highly sought after, with many parents signing their children up to the increasingly long waiting list.

This intergenerational care is a new vision which can bring people of different ages together. “We should be creative with the term ‘intergenerational’ and create a much more cohesive society,” said Ish-Horowicz.

“A society where we can share experiences without being judgemental, but united towards a greater good of building a much happier and fulfilled society.”