As a former Deputy Head and teacher of many classes of 35 four year olds, of course I was going to be intrigued, but not surprised, by the joy they would bring to the lives of those spending the final chapter of their lives in a retirement home in Bristol. Or in ‘God’s waiting room’, as one of his fellow residents puts it.
Hamish, the initially rather curmudgeonly 88 year old, doesn’t seem entirely chuffed to be taking part in a potentially ground-breaking Channel 4 documentary, which involves opening the doors of his retirement home to some new residents — all aged four. His face suggests it’s all rather ridiculous, and an unwelcome interruption to his attempt to read a newspaper.
‘I’m curious to find out what the children are going to learn from older people,’ he concedes. ‘One wonders what on earth the adults are going to be doing with these children. But it really isn’t possible for me to be actively engaged.’
He signals to his prosthetic leg. ‘I’m not really able to get down on my hands and knees and play games with them. One can’t run about and play football.’
Then he retires behind his paper again, and the outcome of this experiment — an attempt to see if the lives of older people can be improved by contact with the young — seems set. Or it does until a persistent little voice declares: ‘I’m making you a cup of tea.’
This programme has the potential to change and enhance the lives of millions of elderly people who suffer gut retching loneliness on a daily, weekly and yearly basis.
The two-part programme has a simple premise. Ten elderly volunteers, all residents of the St Monica Trust retirement home, are introduced to ten lively pre-schoolers who shift their nursery into the retirement home for six weeks.
Every day, the two groups — old and young — spend time together, and do tasks aimed at fostering a relationship between them. The goal? To discover if the health (physical and mental) of older people might be improved by such an association. In short, will the oldies feel younger, feel less depressed, and feel more connected to life?
The idea that there are myriad health benefits from this sort of intergenerational approach is not a new one. In the U.S. and Japan there is a growing movement to combine nursery daycare with retirement care.
At the Intergenerational Learning Centre in Seattle, the very young and very old have been rubbing shoulders for years. There is now a two-year waiting list for children to access this daycare. They do music, dancing and art projects alongside what are effectively adoptive grandparents and great-grandparents.
Now the idea is being implemented in the UK — with the mission of proving it works.
We’ve been given access to the first programme, and it provides food for thought about how we treat our old — and our young.
Along with the TV cameras come an army of experts: doctors, psychologists and physios who are charged with assessing the health of the elderly residents at the start of the project, and again at the end of the six-week stint.
They watch remotely as the two sets get to know each other, and monitor the effect it is having on the older folk.
The most striking thing about the programme is the light it shines on how lonely old age can be. While St Monica’s seems like a fairytale fantasy of a retirement home, akin to a stately home set in vast grounds — it quickly emerges that the residents aren’t necessarily happy here.
Initial assessments are quite shocking. A third of the volunteers show signs of depression. A staggering nine out of ten of them say they find life dull. All but one are assessed as being in poor health physically, and are at risk of falling.
Hamish harrumphs away the ‘balance test’ — which establishes how long the volunteers can stand on one foot — insisting that he can’t do it.
Mary, an 86-year-old retired teacher, is asked how long she has lived in the home. ‘I’ve been told 11 years but I don’t remember.’ How does she fill her days? ‘I go to sleep. That gets rid of the loneliness.’ Her answer to whether she is satisfied with her life is piercing. ‘I’m going to die,’ she says. ‘Quite soon, actually.’
The retirees are lovely, but their situation seems bleak. Professor Malcolm Johnson, a gerontologist at the University of Bath who oversees the trial, sums up the problem. ‘Living with people whose lives have become containers of a multitude of losses — it’s not always fun.’
One day, as part of an activity designed to get the older people moving, David is partnered with little Eva for a stroll.
When he says he must sit down and rest, she urges him to walk further.
He tells her about the birds and the trees, and returns to the main house with a huge grin on his face, a man rejuvenated.
‘It’s not just walking, it’s exploring,’ he says of their little adventure. ‘I’ve rather lost my heart to Eva. She’s a real poppet.’ It’s heart-breaking and soul-soaring all at once.
Monica, 85, is asked on camera how she felt when a little boy ran into the room and almost flattened her by throwing himself into her arms. ‘I didn’t mind it at all. I quite liked it,’ she says.
One of the experts says these retirees often haven’t had physical contact with anyone for years. ‘It’s the sort of thing they don’t realise they have missed,’ she adds.
There is growing evidence that everyone benefits from this sort of interaction, and the news probably won’t come as a surprise to any grandparent who is lucky enough to have small children in their lives — and on their lap.
Academic studies show children become more articulate and confident if they are used to being in the company of older adults.
Certainly the parents of the children involved in this experiment seem delighted with how things panned out.
‘Eva made a very special connection with David,’ said the little girl’s mum Sophie Alker. ‘She was confident before, but I think she’s even more confident now. You can take her anywhere and she’ll bowl up to anyone and chat. I think it’s a great idea for both of them. I’d love to see it rolled out at care homes across the country.’
That’s a message echoed by the experts involved.
Dr Zoe Wyrko, consultant geriatrician at University Hospital Birmingham, who watched the bonds develop, says that as a society we must take steps to embrace the idea.
I for one, want to get involved with making this happen throughout the UK.
This is a life changing experience for the elderly, and for the children, and my favourite line came from Eva, who is asked, ‘What happens when you are old?’ ‘I think you go in a bungalow,’ she replies !