When it comes to intergenerational play, there are no losers. So why did it take a TV series to show us what we were missing?
The nourishment that comes from pairing active seniors with young pre-schoolers is a form of pharmaceutical-free medicine that many believe should be available to all Australians.
It is a behaviour clearly identified by Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw who rather prophetically noted: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
This modern form of bonding is one that Aveo Durack retirement community has clearly taken to heart, with the Queensland-based aged care and retirement community joining forces with Playgroup Australia to undertake regular ageless play sessions.
The initiative sees older and younger people brought together weekly for the purpose of providing meaningful social roles and to share their experiences and skills.
Helen Bond, the Lifestyle Coordinator at Aveo Durack, says while the program has only been going for a short time, it has struck a positive chord with participants.
“The residents love it. They look forward to catching up with the playgroup families each week to play, read books, have sing-a-longs and see what new skills their little friends have mastered.
“Residents, including some of our male residents, chat with the new parents about their own children and the stages of growing up, and enjoy sharing their experiences. The residents and playgroup families have come to know each other quite well.”
Sense of fun
Playgroup Australia says research into the benefits of intergenerational programs suggests there are benefits for all ages including people living in retirement villages and aged care facilities, families, young children and employees.
For active seniors this translates to enjoyment through the sense of fun and energy that young children can bring, and to share their value through lifelong knowledge and experience.
At the opposite end of the age scale, children involved in these types of programs develop social skills and awareness, empathy, gentleness, and unbounded love through an extension of family.
“Research continues to highlight the benefits of play and relationships in supporting the best start to life for children and families, while wellbeing studies report the benefits of physical and mental activity for ageing populations,” Playgroup Australia says.
“Through intergenerational initiatives like Ageless Play we are combining the two – increasing positive intergenerational outcomes to support a more connected, inclusive community without ageism.”
Key to the future
Dr Stephanie Ward has made it her life’s work to specialise in the care of older adults.
She is also a co-investigator on the Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA)-led Intergenerational Integration Initiative which is establishing and evaluating intergenerational preschools involving community-dwelling older adults.
She is best known, however, for her appearances on a ground-breaking ABC documentary series that brought together a group of retirement community and aged care residents and pre-schoolers for daily activities to see if uniting young and old could improve the health and wellbeing of older people.
The TV series, Old People's Home For 4-Year-Olds, proved an instant hit with viewers and prompted a huge surge in interest in this form of social structure. The first series of the show led to 2,000 inquiries to Playgroups Australia for it to set up intergenerational playgroups around the country.
Having recently aired its second season, it is also credited with helping spur the Victorian government’s decision to pledge $500,000 for the building of a 66-place intergenerational centre on the Mornington Peninsula.
Feedback such as this has Dr Ward “extremely excited” about the potential of intergenerational contact to improve well-being for older adults.
Having seen first-hand the benefits that intergenerational contact has for everyone involved, she says being part of the experiment has shown just how important having purpose, meaning and connection is for us and for our health at any age.
It has shown how much joy and magic happens when the generations are brought together, and how this joy translates into better physical and mental health all around, Dr Ward says.
“Anecdotally what I observed is that older persons that have contact with younger people, children and younger members of the family regularly seem to be happier. I observed that in my clinical practice as well the magic and the joy that visits from young people bring, especially to residents of aged care or retirement villages.
“What the research does tell us is that contact with younger people may help improve a sense of wellbeing, quality of life and for persons living with dementia may also help with effective engagement. The research also tells us it is good to have some structure to guide such interactions – there should be no age limit on joy or fun.”
The time needed
Dr Ward says while intergenerational play is relatively new in a formal sense, the concept where pre-school classes visit or sometimes take place in aged care facilities or in co-located facilities, is quite common in places such as the United States.
What hasn’t been around for long has been a strong evidence base around the benefits, particularly an evidence base looking at quantifiable health metrics, she says.
In addition, little is known about the frequency of contact that can make significant health differences.
“The studies that have looked at intergenerational contact have varied in length of exposure, frequency and duration. From my reading there is no clear cut answer.
In the Old People's Homes for 4-Year-Olds social experiment, that was a really intensive experiment where the two generations were brought together for about six hours a day, four days a week over six weeks. That was a very intensive interaction and the TV show demonstrated significant benefits.
“When you look at the frequency you have to look at what is going to be sustainable for older people, for younger people and their educators, and for the care staff that are involved. It needs to actually be practical. The type of interaction we saw in the TV show is not easily translatable but I would say that any contact is better than none.”
The current state of play
While it is clear that pre-COVID-19 a number of aged care facilities and groups had established meaningful relationships with local preschools, early childhood centres and/or school groups, Dr Ward says there are a number of support structures that are required for these types of programs to be formalised.
In addition to needing a willingness from relevant organisations, it also requires initiative and reaching out to make partnerships with other local groups, she says.
“I’ve heard from mothers, parents, school groups wanting to reach out with older people in their community and vice versa from aged care providers looking to link in with preschools. There needs to be a willingness of leadership to explore and be committed to this. There needs to be a reasonable risk management in terms of safety for children and safety for older adults and adequate staffing.”
To help aid this process, Griffith University has launched a specialised toolkit as part of its Intergenerational Care Project. The aim of the project is to re-connect communities through the development, implementation and evaluation of intergenerational programs and it marks the first time different models of intergenerational learning programs have been formally trialled and evaluated in Australia.
To help further expand learnings in this area, a second project – the Intergenerational Integration Initiative – serves as a literature review of all the evidence for intergenerational programs for older Australians still living at home.
To date an electronic survey on expectations and barriers to participating in such a program has been carried out and focus groups held. Recently a 10-week pilot intergenerational preschool was launched, operating for roughly three hours a week, once a week at a local preschool where 11 older adults from the community join with 10 preschoolers for structured activities together. It is hoped funding will be sourced to undertake a larger study later this year.
Where the future will take us
Dr Ward says while it is important to continue the momentum in the right direction, it’s important these aren’t rushed to ensure proper evaluations of each program can be conducted.
More time needs to be given as to what’s going to work out from the children’s point of view, what’s going to work from the older adults point of view and where the
commonalities are, she says.
“The TV show is showing what is possible but we need some more dedicated research into this space to work out what is feasible and to look at how we can translate what we see on TV into the real world in a way that helps guide further initiatives.
Despite this, Dr Ward says she is excited by the prospect of more intergenerational programs being rolled out across Australia and what this will mean for older Australians, preschoolers and those who love them.
“Intergenerational contact is an amazing way to give people moments of joy which can then bring about all sorts of other benefits as well. It is something so beautiful, so important, and so very much needed in our society today.”
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