I happened to watch an episode of the TV documentary, Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds, and was hooked. It was delightful to watch the happiness all round as isolated older people got to know and enjoy sharing activities and interactions with four-year-old kindergarten children.
The idea was to see if intergenerational contact can improve the health and wellbeing of older people and help them to lead happier and healthier lives.
The concept is not entirely new. In 1976, a combined nursery school and home for the aged was established in Tokyo and, by 1998, there were 16 such joint facilities in Japan. The idea began to be tested in North America and now there are such intergenerational centres in Canada and the United States too.
Research shows the benefits of intergenerational interaction for elderly people – decreased loneliness, delayed mental decline, lower blood pressure, and reduced risk of disease and earlier death. The children benefit too, making them less likely to view older people as incompetent and enhancing their social and personal development.
The episode where four-year-olds discuss happiness and loneliness with the older participants gets to the heart of the series. Loneliness and isolation are the hardest challenges of aging and the series does seek to measure what effects that has on mental and physical health.
The recent royal commission into aged care identified problems with funding, staffing ratios and training for those working in the sector. But this experiment in bringing kindergarten into aged care is something that would not necessarily cost a lot, while providing huge benefits on the “enjoyment of life” index, and with cost savings.
The improvement in the mood of the elderly people participating in the series was clear. Feeling happier spills over into other aspects of life, such as extending the capacity to do everyday tasks. It also enhances memory and thus has to increase safety for older people living alone. This could mean older people being independent for longer and being able, with minimal assistance, to stay in their own homes.
Interaction with the children meant increased physical activity for the elderly participants. Physical activity benefits physical health by increasing blood flow to major organs, including the brain, which can enhance mental acuity and elevate mood. The happier a person is, the more active they are likely to be. So, it has a feedback effect.
The physical activity also had an inbuilt challenge for the elderly participants. As we age, we do become more likely to fall; and this was a common fear they expressed. Sharing physical activities with the four-year-olds in a controlled environment pushed them to engage in physical activity they would not have engaged in on their own. Success in engaging in such activities had the important benefit of restoring confidence in their own physical capacities and so increasing their independence.
I still wondered if this was just an experiment to produce a feel-good TV program, or whether it has something valuable to offer for long-term approaches to aged care. I do think the relationships between the elderly participants and the four-year-olds were mostly fragile and would not last beyond the series.
However, the series shows that interactions with young children are hugely beneficial to isolated elderly people. It would be more than worthwhile to do the costing of introducing four-year-old kindergarten (one or two sessions every week) into aged-care homes and residential facilities. For older people living at home, aged-care sessions in local kindergartens once or twice a week would provide the same benefit.
The children would change every year, but as we age we do adapt to living “in the moment”, as children do. So, this is not a drawback. For the children it means that for one or two years in pre-school they have close contact with elderly people, which they may not otherwise have, with extended families becoming smaller.
It is a win-win all round. But to be more than just a feel-good experiment, it needs to be explored as a possible aged-care policy to be introduced in a comprehensive way throughout the aged-care sector, not just on an ad hoc basis.
Although a sad reflection of Australia’s under-replacement birth rate, smaller families with fewer children means fewer family members to invest the time needed to alleviate the loneliness and isolation of elderly relatives. With the imminent expected increase in the number of people over 65, this is a pressing problem.
Intergenerational learning centres could help alleviate the problem, benefit children and older people, and lighten the financial burden of increased demand for aged care.
A similar experiment in Seattle, US
The Growing Season – a documentary exploring the experience of ageing in the US
Watch the complete season of Old People’s Home For 4 Year Olds
4-Year-Olds Discuss Happiness And Loneliness With Older People – a clip from Old People’s Home For 4 Year Olds