There is a lovely African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child”, which highlights the importance of community in the growth and development of children; our future leaders. The philosophy could apply just as well to the other end of the age spectrum; our ageing population raises a series of challenges for our entire society and it stands to reason that society as a whole should play a role in managing those challenges.
Growing old and lonely
A full quarter of Australians over the age of 65 live alone and that number is expected to double by 2021 according to Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) research. A 2014 report on the effects of social isolation by the Council on the Ageing (COTA) found that loneliness in the elderly can have a serious impact on their mental health and wellbeing. Meanwhile studies have linked social interaction with decreased loneliness, lower blood pressure, and reduced risk of disease in older people.
Yet most out-of-home care options for children and respite services for older adults are segregated; both the very young and the elderly are routinely separated from the wider community. It’s a model that is being challenged internationally with a shift toward intergenerational programs that purposefully bring together younger and older people for everyone’s benefit.
A living, vibrant community
One particularly successful example is the Intergenerational Learning Centre in Seattle, where a kindergarten is located within the campus of a care home for more than 400 older adults. Young and old share meals, craft, and story-telling as well as dance and music sessions in common areas throughout the campus.
Centre administrator Charlene Boyd told The Atlantic newspaper the program was designed to counteract the loneliness and boredom that so often characterise life in a nursing facility.
“We wanted a living, vibrant community to make sure that this was a place where people came to live, not die.”
Old people’s home for 4-year-olds
A not-quite-scientific – bust vastly entertaining – social experiment by Channel 4 in the UK brought together 10 four-year-old children and 11 people in their late 80s to measure the impact of inter-generational interaction on the health and happiness of the older group.
The Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds program ran for six weeks. After three weeks the elderly participants showed improved cognition, mood and physical abilities. At the start of the experiment, nearly all of the residents were identified as depressed, two of them severely. After six weeks, none of them was registered as depressed.
The Australian Experience
According to Social Care Foundation Australia the concept of combining ages is being “embraced” in Australia but “there is a lot of red tape to cut through and boxes to tick before a joint facility can ever be close to a possibility”.
But some players are quietly chipping away at the concept. Playgroup Victoria has held a fortnightly get-together for babies and toddlers, carers and elderly residents at Geelong’s Bupa Bellarine Aged Care Centre. Centre staff report some residents were transformed from “flat” and “wandering” to “100% involved” when the children were on site.
The economics of innovative care
Meanwhile, the Intergenerational Care Project, a three-year federally funded study by Griffiths University researchers, will evaluate the educational, workforce, economic and social benefits intergenerational programs could bring to Australia.
Professor Anneke Fitzgerald told the ABC’s AM program the psychological benefits of the intergenerational care model are already clear, but the economic implications needed to be better understood.
“We’re looking at the economic effects and the implications an intergenerational care model could have for the workforce and the development of new careers,” Prof Fitzgerald says.
She says aged care and child care policies and operational models “need to move with the times”.
“We’re not saying there’s anything wrong with the system we’ve got now, but innovative models could help Australia become more aged friendly.”