Young and Old, Together

In Not a One Way Affair, we told the story of how churches are affirming the spiritual life of the elderly through a Common Good approach, breaking through their physical and spiritual isolation. Our brothers and sisters in their twilight years deserve better than loneliness, depression and abandonment by society; moreover, they have a valuable contribution to make.

By 2050, an unprecedented demographic shift will mean for the first time in history, the elderly will outnumber children under five. Western societies are woefully underprepared to deal with the scale of the change to come. Add to this the tendency to see the economically inactive as a burden, the pressure for euthanasia, and the epidemic of loneliness generated by individualism in its varied forms, and we are faced with serious questions. What has happened to our society’s understanding of what it means to be a human person and what might this lead to, coming down the line?

There are many social fractures we need to overcome to build a more human future, not least the estrangement between young and old. So innovative approaches that affirm the fundamental value of every single human being must be celebrated and shared. Our care for the elderly is a key area that urgently requires new, practical solutions. Models for inter-generational shared activity are just what the doctor ordered, embodying just one example of how the Common Good can work in practice.

An unlikely partnership is showing a better way forward. A TV programme entitled ‘Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds’ seems rather paradoxical: how can bringing the oldest and youngest in society together create anything other than chaos? But St Monica Trust, with their roots in the High Anglican tradition, saw an opportunity to work with Channel 4 and do something different. They devised a model for care homes that benefited not only the residents, but also the children who came to visit them.

Residents of St Monica Trust in a theatrical production with the four-year-olds. Credit: Channel 4/St. Monicas Trust

Ten four-year-olds and eleven people in their late eighties were brought together for a six week experiment in a new nursery within St Monica’s retirement community in Bristol. Inspired by a similar scheme set up 25 years ago in the US, this was an inter-generational experiment designed to measure the impact on the health and happiness of older people. 

Bringing together people born in the early 1930s with those born in 2013 is a radical way of tackling some of the deep problems faced by our ageing population. Depression, loneliness, isolation and social poverty are endemic within a generation largely abandoned by society. St Monica’s experiment shows what a Common Good approach to care of the elderly could look like. Here relationships are central, expressed through restoring the dignity of its residents, bringing them joy, laughter and companionship. This is a deeply human approach in which their wellbeing is put first.

However, the children also gain from this experience, an aspect that can be easily overlooked. They benefit from engaging with people who aren’t in a hurry and who want to share in the simple delights of shared human activity. Whether exploring the gardens together, taking part in an inter-generational sports day, reading together, theatrical productions or arts and crafts activities, the benefits are reciprocal. Their joint participation generates a Common Good between them which, quite literally, fills their days with joy and provides both with an opportunity to grow socially.

The outcomes are striking. At the start of the experiment, nearly all the residents were identified as depressed, two of them severely. After just six weeks, none of them was registered as depressed. They reported that their whole outlook on life had changed and they had hope for the future. Through active participation with the children through games, walking outdoors and even the simplest of things like getting up and down off the floor, they found a renewed new sense of purpose and belonging. Finding themselves in positive relationships, where each person is needed, valued and involved - this is what gives life meaning.

 

“A trusting little hand in yours will get you out of your seat even if you are feeling down.”

 

The experiment has continued after the TV cameras were switched off. Contact between the residents, the children and their families continues. St Monica’s is looking to facilitate opportunities for interaction between the residents and surrounding communities further. Indeed, what they have learned from this experiment is now influencing their wider corporate policy:

“Seeing the evidence of the positive impact of bringing these two generations together has only strengthened the Trust’s desire to create open communities that actively encourage contact across different age groups. We will also be installing children’s playgrounds at all of our sites, including an indoor play area at our newest development in Keynsham, The Chocolate Quarter.”

The Christmas special "Old People's Home for Four Year Olds" showcased the continued success of the initiative. 
Credit: Age UK/Channel 4

There are other examples like this which also demonstrate excellent outcomes. Take Apples and Honey Nightingale, the UK’s first ‘co-located nursery in a care home’ in Wandsworth, London. Centred on the values and traditions of Judaism, it welcomes children of all faiths and none and offers a carefully designed programme of daily intergenerational activities where the children interact with the residents.

Judith Ish-Horowicz, one of the co-founders of Apples and Honey Nightingale, watches new relationships blossom every single day.

“Residents have time to listen… They explain to the children how things used to be so that they understand that the world is always changing and they are all part of this adventure. I think the children rise to this responsibility and it gives them confidence and a feeling of security in being loved and respected. Their sensitivity to the needs of their new friends is wonderful to watch and they show an unexpected maturity.”

Building care homes beside nurseries and schools could help to bridge the looming demographic divide between the generations, as a recent report found. Research by United For All Ages shows that contact with care home residents can help develop children’s understanding of ageing and issues affecting older people. Stephen Burke from the team says this approach:

“…Allows young children to understand and value elderly people and also see them as an integral part of the community as they grow up to be leaders of tomorrow… breaking down 'age apartheid', reducing loneliness and divided communities.”

These examples of a Common Good approach to care of the elderly and young children are still the exception, but innovative ideas such as these could develop much more widely if the model was more well known. Could people across the churches play a constructive role to encourage more initiatives like these?

 

 

Tom Ketteringham

 

 

Find out more about the experiment in Bristol, at Channel 4  and St Monica's Trust.

For more about the Apples and Honey intergenerational nursing home, click here.  

Read about the scale of demographic change in this article by Yvonne Roberts here.

 

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