Many people remember a few months ago a Channel 4 documentary called Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds. This documentary graphically showed the benefits to both younger and older people of coming together and connecting across the generations.
One of the most amazing things that I felt came out of the documentary was the tangible things that were improved by the connection across the generations. I remember one older person who was holding fast to have a zimmer frame when she went through the initial assessment, and the final scene of the documentary, was the joyous moment when she and her four-year-old friend, were together in an egg and spoon race, with not a zimmer in sight. It was great to see how the older persons confidence had been built by the association with the children and it was also wonderful to see how the confidence of the children had been enhanced by developing friendships with the older residents of the care home.
Over the years I have been fortunate enough to be involved in projects, where different generations have come together and there are some excellent organisations, such as Intergen, championing activities that reach across the generations.
I first became aware of the importance of intergenerational connections when I started to work for Age Concern England in the 1980s and our then Director-General, Sally, now Baroness Greengross, was (and still is) a passionate advocate of connections between the generations.
When I first went to Age Concern Greenwich there was a degree of tension between younger and older people on the Meridian Estate near the Cutty Sark. It was Sally Greengross who advised me to find ways in which the two groups could interact with one another, and we started to set up some coffee and drop in sessions for both older people and single parents. Initially, they were two separate events in the same venue, after a while it became one event of friends coming together to support one another. Sally’s advice was very clear, she said do not force the issue, find ways in which people can come together naturally, and also find things that they can do together, which will be helpful to both sections of the community.
What I have noticed is that the connections work best when there is some purpose behind them. I went to a fantastic care home in Thamesmead South London and the residents in the care home had connected with some students at the local school who were doing a local history project. The care home was full of people who have lived in the area all their lives and were able to bring the history of the locality alive for the students. The incentive for the older person was the knowledge that their skills and experience were being used and would make a difference and for the students the richness of the information they had, meant that the students would get a much higher mark in their exam.
What was great about this initiative was that when the exam was over 80% of the students continue to visit the older people that had become friends. The older people and students formed a range of really interesting subsequent activities, such as discussion forums and living history sessions, which were thoroughly enjoyed by everyone. I was lucky enough to be at one of the sessions where they were discussing what it was like to be young in Plumstead, then and now and the richness of the discussion, the lively interaction and the good humour was a tonic for everybody.
During the recent pandemic I have also seen some lovely examples of younger people writing to care home residents, so that they feel connected even at a time when we are all in lockdown.
There are undoubtedly many benefits to connections between the generations, and for a recognition that society is at its best when we get to know and understand people. Activities between the generations are to be encouraged, but I believe they are at the very best, when they are purposeful and there is a reason for them.