Guest Blog:Downshall Intergenerational Group (DIG) Open Day
Authored by Alexa Kerr-Dineen, Skills for Care Graduate at Care City
In 2018, Channel 4 aired Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds, a social experiment turned documentary investigating the impact of intergenerational contact between residents of an old people’s home and a group of preschool aged children. The programme successfully captured the nation’s hearts as we watched the youngsters forge relationships with the older adults, however beyond the heartwarming sight of nonagenarians joining in a game of doctors and nurses, the experiment underpinning it showed the staggering impact that the project had.
At the beginning of the 6 week experiment window, the group of older adults were tested on their cognition, mood and depression alongside various tests on physical mobility and balance. They were re-tested on these in the middle and the end of the experiment. By the end of the trial, which involved many opportunities for the elderly participants to be up and about, moving and interacting with the children in a multitude of different real-life scenarios (e.g. in the garden, in a supermarket), 80% of the elderly participants had shown a marked improvement in their tests. The most significant marker of the success of the project was the change in their elderly participants’ moods. At the beginning of the programme, nearly all of the group of older adults were considered depressed or severely depressed, whereas at the end none of them were. This not only highlights the benefits of being exposed to the children, but also highlights the intrinsic link between mental health and physical health; a higher mood boosts confidence and motivates social interaction, which in turn encourages your body to follow suit.
However, the benefits of experiments of this like are not entirely one-sided. The first years of a child’s life are a crucial development period for their social, cognitive, behavioural and emotional skills. Intergenerational exposure at a young age has been shown to improve communication and reading skills, which in turn prepares children for school. Furthermore, the different social and emotional skill sets which come with intergenerational integration, especially with age groups outside a child’s norm allows for further development in their communication skills, empathy and social and emotional intelligence.
Downshall Primary School in Ilford has been running an intergenerational project for the past 2 years, hosting monthly open days to show interested parties how it works. I was lucky enough to go along as a Care City representative to see the project in action and pick the brains of those behind it. Dr David Hinchcliffe, Consultant Old Age Psychiatrist, in partnership with Headteacher Ian Bennett, launched the programme to mutually benefit the old and the young through supervised interaction. The process sees older adults who are suffering from social isolation, loneliness, low mood or depression often alongside early dementia being referred to the programme as a way to combat some of the side effects of old age. This is also a means of keeping an eye on them after they’re discharged from hospital care to their GP, as so often in the health service, though someone’s physical health might be up to scratch, their mental health and overarching wellbeing does not necessarily follow suit.
Three days a week, the older adults arrive in the morning and have a 30 minute catch up with their fellow older adults over a hot drink in their designated Downshall Intergenerational Group (DIG) area before being briefed on the plan of action for their sessions in the classrooms. They then have two twenty minute sessions in the classrooms with reception aged children (4 and 5 year olds) partaking in whatever activity has been planned for them. Something that struck me as particularly interesting was that the ‘focussed’ children and older adults were not segregated from the classroom environment, but the older adults had a table at the back of the classroom that any of the children could approach if they’d wanted to. This made the setup feel very organic and not at all clinical. After a morning of activities with the younger children, participants have lunch with slightly older children in year 4 (aged 8-9). There was something very touching about the older adults eating communally, not just because it ensured that they receive a hot meal, but because it gives them the chance to interact with people their own age and the younger generation when so often they would be eating at home on their own.
On the open day I attended, the children had just read the story of the three little pigs with their class teacher, so the older adults were working with the children to make houses out of various different materials. Arts and crafts are undeniably a fantastic means of self expression in the young and the old and act as a great way to form relationships between the two groups in a calm and creative environment. Often, the older adults have complex health conditions including age related illnesses such as dementia. Communication, therefore, can sometimes be a challenge. Similarly, the “high focus” children who had been identified as those who might benefit the most from these sessions often have trouble communicating, some even being mute. There was a particular older adult with quite advanced dementia who had struck up a relationship with a little girl who rarely spoke over the course of her time attending the project, and through low-pressure creative tasks such as arts and crafts, they had both grown in confidence and the little girl’s communication skills had increased considerably.
In the busyness of day to day life, it is all too common for young children to feel overlooked or neglected; a feeling shared with the adults at the other end of their lifespan. Mr Ian Bennett, the headteacher at Downshall Primary, stressed the point that the children are central to the project, and the older adult volunteers have an element of responsibility for the welfare of the children; the children need their undivided attention and guidance. Through this programme, many of the ‘focussed children’ who had trouble speaking, communicating with adults or socially interacting often went on to thrive. One of the Early Years leaders working on the project told the story of a child who was mute throughout nursery and the beginning of reception (that’s to say aged 3-4.5), at which point he whispered in somebody’s ear, which proved to be the verbal breakthrough that led to what is now a chatty and receptive 6 year old.
Downshall has recently been awarded the national dementia award for its intergenerational work; a thoroughly deserved accolade. The project’s success is a true testament to the fundamental understanding of the human need to be understood and noticed which lies at the heart of it. The heartwarming success of the project seems to be catching, with a high level of interest in other local schools to get involved. Nurturing the bookend generations of our society is a wonderful way of preparing the young for the path ahead, and on the other end of the spectrum, provides an ode to lives well lived.