Opinion Real Lives

Miracles do happen when generations come together

Louise Goulden, Founder and CEO of The Together Project

Louise Goulden, Founder and CEO of The Together Project, writes about the transformative power of communities coming together.

It was 11am on a drizzly Wednesday in east London and two-year-old Iris was in Sainsbury’s helping her mum with the weekly shop. As they packed up the last of the groceries a group of older ladies walked by. Iris had never met them before, but she pointed and excitedly shouted “Friends!”.

It’s a story her mum enthusiastically recounts when telling people about the positive impact of intergenerational friendships.

Iris and her mum began attending Songs & Smiles, run by national charity The Together Project, when Iris was just a few weeks old. The weekly groups, held in care settings and retirement properties, bring together young children, their parents/guardians and older adults to sing, move, play, make friends and have lots of fun. Over the months Iris and her mum began to form close bonds with the residents at the Walthamstow care home. There was Kathleen, a former West End dancer; Jim, joke-loving ex-Scout leader; Allan, whose dementia was very progressed but could sing every nursery rhyme word-perfectly, to name just a few. And because of these formative experiences, Iris had naturally come to associate older people with fun and friendship. Instead of being shut away, or ‘othered’, they were playmates who would play peekaboo with her and make funny faces.

And just as importantly, they were all sources of support for her mum, who had postnatal depression. She talks about the comfort gained from chatting over cups of tea with people who’d experienced the highs and lows of parenthood many decades ago. And how seeing the impact that her smiling little girl had on brightening people’s days gave her a sense of purpose and value, contributing to her self-esteem.

As for the impact on the older people? “Like a miracle”, according to Activities Coordinator Karolina. “Songs & Smiles was the best thing we could ever do. When the kids started coming every Friday we began to see changes. We have a few residents who cannot really talk, and I realised they began to try to say something. Even the instruments – how they were trying to use them – they were never able to do things like that. Some of our residents don’t like to smile or want to talk, but as soon as the kids and parents came in that changed.

“The sessions even help the staff as well. This job is very difficult, it’s very stressful, and so when the babies were coming and we could enjoy ourselves with the residents, that was so lovely.”

These heartwarming insights contrast to hard, cold loneliness stats. Like loneliness being as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Holt-Lunstad), worse than lack of exercise or obesity (Campaign to End Loneliness), and people living in care homes are more than twice as likely to report feeling lonely than the rest of the population (Alzheimer’s Society).

Bringing communities together, for mutual benefit, is key to tackling this. The most successful intergenerational activities aren’t about one group doing something ‘for’ another’. They create opportunities for people to meet as equals, where everyone has something to give and something to gain. And not only do they help in the here and now, they lay important future foundations. Iris and her peers are the next generation of business owners, carers and policy makers, whose attitudes towards older people will directly shape the later life experiences of the over-65s.

The Together Project offers a range of intergenerational programmes, including Songs & Smiles and Crafting Connections – an arts & crafts exchange partnering children with care home residents to form long-lasting friendships via the post.

To find out more and get involved visit www.thetogetherproject.org.uk.


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