A one-off visit to elderly people in a residential home or community centre is not an unusual part of a nursery’s annual activities. Children from Plant Parciau nursery in Caernarfon, Wales, took this one step further when they took part in an experiment which was aired on Welsh television at the end of last year. The programme, Hen Blant Bach, aimed to investigate the potential for bringing young children and the elderly together to share daycare on a regular basis.
A group of six children aged three and under travelled to the Maesincla Daycare Centre for three consecutive days, taking part in activities overseen by academics from Bangor University. The resulting documentary focused on the clear benefits to the pensioners that arose from taking part in joint activities such as hat-making, cake-decorating, and sharing photographs and stories.
But there were also many benefits for the children, says child psychologist Dr Nia Williams, a researcher and part-time lecturer at Bangor whose field is child psychology.
‘I saw an improvement in language development,’ she says. ‘One of the children, from an English-speaking background, understood Welsh but had never spoken any. The attention he was given by the older people encouraged him to start singing in Welsh, and start to produce Welsh words.’
Dr Williams also noted that the children reacted well to mixing with men at the daycare centre. ‘The kids loved the male attention,’ she says. ‘There is a difference between how men and women play with children, and the way in which men play can help children grow their independence. The staff at the nursery were all female, and having male attention really interested the children.’
Dr Williams noticed the amount of attention children were receiving was causing their confidence to increase. ‘Children like to be watched, to have someone to laugh with them,’ she says. ‘A lot of children these days don’t necessarily have attention from the elderly, but that connection is a special bond, and this kind of interaction helps to bridge that lack in a way. It is important to encourage children to appreciate the elderly, rather than seeing them as invisible, not as quick as others.’
Rhian Ackers, manager of Plant Parciau, hopes that the relationship between the children and the daycare centre can continue. ‘We have invited them to afternoon tea here but that hasn’t happened yet,’ she says.
There are challenges to arranging joint activities. The daycare centre is better set up to receive children than the nursery is to host older people, but the nursery does have to provide cover for the staff who are accompanying the children. ‘It has ended up costing me a bit,’ says Ms Ackers.
There are questions of safeguarding, both for the children and the elderly. ‘One issue I raised was that all the children had had chicken pox,’ says Dr Williams. ‘When is it safe for children to be in contact with the elderly, whose immune systems might be low?’ It was also important that activities were structured, accessible and carefully thought-out.
‘If they just turned up, the kids would be wondering what they are supposed to do; the elderly would be asking, “What do you want us to do?” There needs to be some structure,’ explains Dr Williams.
The experiment has been so successful that there is talk of producing more TV episodes. The local council has been in touch with the programme-makers and is planning a meeting to look at what else could be done in the same vein. Other countries, however, go even further, by permanently locating childcare and elder care in the same building or campus.
In Singapore, for example, childcare facilities and senior centres will be co-located in ten new projects in the next decade to provide opportunities for intergenerational bonding, as part of a $3 billion (£1.69 billion) national plan to help Singaporeans age confidently and lead active lives. The Singapore government is also encouraging existing operators of elder care facilities to introduce innovative programming that allows the young and old to interact.
In the US also there are a number of initiatives which co-locate childcare and elder services, such as The Intergenerational Learning Centre. Located within the campus of Providence Mount St Vincent, a care home for more than 400 older people in Seattle, is a nursery for children aged from six weeks to five years. The children are taken to visit the residents, and residents can visit the nursery, with both taking part in a programme of structured joint activities such as singalong time, craft activities and cooking.
In this country, the group United for All Ages, which combines expertise from the early years and elder care sectors, is calling for a similar approach. ‘At the moment, some care homes invite children in from nursery or primary school, but it’s very much a one-off,’ says Stephen Burke, co-founder of United for all Ages with his wife Denise. ‘We would like to encourage people to make it part of everyday life. Co-location would also encourage mixing not just between nursery children and care home residents, but also between parents and grandparents of children at the nursery and the families (often daughters or sons of care home residents, which is a real multigenerational opportunity).’
Mr Burke believes retirement housing schemes are well-equipped to offer intergenerational activities, as many have facilities that can be shared. Local toddlers visit Anchor’s Eastlake care home in Godalming, Surrey, for example, twice a month to play games, sing nursery rhymes and interact with the residents. Local mother Tara Baker set up the group specifically to bridge the gap between the older and younger generations.
Children’s centres can also benefit from bringing in services for older people. ‘A lot of community facilities such as children’s centres are struggling for funding, and this is a way of extending their reach,’ says Mr Burke. ‘Grandparents are often the ones bringing and collecting the children to and from childcare and nursery, and children’s centres could think about how they might involve older people and encourage provision of other services from their facilities.’
Some facilities already host services for older people and young children, such as the Masbro Centre in the London borough of Hammersmith, which has both a children’s centre and an Elders Club, with sessions such as embroidery workshops, and workshops on loss and life transitions.
As well as the benefits that arise for children and older people from shared care, there are also economic and logistical advantages, says Denise Burke, chair of the Poppy & Jack’s nursery and pre-school chain and former chief executive of Smallsteps Kinderopvang, the largest nursery group in the Netherlands.
‘I think the killer for childcare organisations is that most are struggling at the moment, and they also see elder care as something where the funding is not flush either,’ she says. ‘But they are not looking at what comes uppermost, the economic benefits of co-location. Yes, there are different inspectorates and different statutory requirements, but most childcare providers are looking for a unique selling point, and the USP of bringing age ranges together is the benefits to the children.’
There are companies in the UK which run both care homes and nursery groups, but at the moment none are looking to combine the two. United for All Ages hopes to change this. ‘We are arranging a meeting in the spring between bigger care homes and childcare providers,’ says Mr Burke. ‘There has been a lot of interest in this area.’
Cheryl Hadland is managing director of Hadland Care Group, which includes Tops Day Nurseries and Reside Care Home. She says there are logistical and financial benefits to running both from one business. ‘Head office functions such as human resources, maintenance, some admin, marketing and PR and directors can be shared between both businesses,’ she explains.
While Hadland Care Group does not co-locate childcare and services for the elderly, Ms Hadland thinks it is a ‘great idea’. ‘It is good for children to experience much older people when they may not have an extended family at home,’ she says. ‘Both need to be monitored carefully to ensure neither puts the other at risk nor upsets them, so very good staff supervision is essential.’
The group does, however, link the nurseries and care homes that it runs in other ways. ‘The children visit quite regularly to sing at Christmas, and share events such as Harvest Festival, fireworks, and Easter,’ says Ms Hadland. ‘They enjoy having a snack together, looking at the pets at the care home, as well as interacting with the residents,’ she adds.
‘The residents are very happy to see something different, and enjoy reminiscing about their own childhood or their own children or grandchildren. They really like a little hand to hold if the child is happy to offer, and the benefits to more frequent visiting is that children will be more relaxed and happy to be close to the residents who would no longer be strangers.’
Bangor’s Dr Williams also believes co-location is the way forward. ‘It makes sense to combine both, considering the costs of maintenance, and staff – for me it is a no-brainer,’ she says.
The Hen Blant Bach documentary struck a chord with many. ‘People stop me in the street and say they watched it and it was lovely,’ says Dr Williams. ‘A clip has been watched 50,000 times on Facebook.’ This popular reaction has shown that while there are challenges to overcome, there is a great appetite for initiatives that bring together the oldest and youngest in society.