Analysis: Intergenerational Practice - Uniting young and old

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A children's centre is aiming to bridge the age gap by sharing activities with older members of the community, amid moves towards intergenerational services across the UK. Ruth Thomson reports.

The popular image of Britain's teenagers as violent, promiscuous and drunk has even made it over the Atlantic and into the pages of Time magazine. America's leading news weekly concluded in a 26 March article that 'Britons are frightened of their young,' while children are 'cold-shouldered by grown-ups' and living with 'very little meaningful engagement with adults'.

The comments, though contentious, were at least timely, coming just after plans were unveiled for an innovative centre designed to promote greater understanding between the generations and bring benefits across the community by having young and old work together.

In what will be the first venture of its kind in the UK, the London Borough of Merton is using children's centre funding and a £1.5m award from the London Development Agency to create an intergenerational centre and children's centre under the same roof.

Work has already started on clearing the site, a disused youth centre, next to a primary and secondary school and within one of the most deprived areas of the borough. The centre will open next summer.

In addition to the family services provided in what will be the new Lonesome Children's Centre, the intergenerational centre will offer services including IT facilities and training for young and old, a programme of reading, arts, crafts and drama sessions, and a variety of sports and games. What will set the centre apart from a community centre will be its emphasis on shared activities.

Louise Middleton, national development officer for the Beth Johnson Foundation, a centre dedicated to promoting intergenerational practice, explains, 'The Merton centre will be all about building communities, social cohesion and sharing skills. The centre will be a central point for everyone and there will be a strong slant on shared, not segregated, resources.'

So, for example, older people attending the centre could advise young parents on cooking and mentor teenagers in their schoolwork, while the youngsters could help teach older people IT skills.

'We see it as a one-stop shop for all ages, young and old, families and individuals, and it will bring huge holistic benefits, as well as saving money,' says Denise Burke, head of childcare at the London Development Agency.

'There's massive potential here,' adds early years consultant Marion Dowling. 'Older people can bring time, wisdom and perspective to childrearing and the life challenges that young families might be facing. Being involved is also life-affirming for the older people.'

Body of evidence

Intergenerational practice has suffered from a lack of evaluation, but a growing body of evidence is now emerging about its benefits. Alan Hatton-Yeo, chief executive of the Beth Johnson Foundation and Centre for Intergenerational Practice, says, 'There's a very compelling story out there and a huge number of projects have now demonstrated that intergenerational practice is a strong tool for building social networks that have broken down.'

Principally, he says, intergenerational practice has been found to improve:

- The lives of children at risk

- Relations between the generations by challenging ageist attitudes towards both young and old, curbing suspicion and fear of crime and so breeding tolerance

- The mental and physical well-being of older people by giving them a role (through, for example, mentoring schemes).

Baroness Sally Greengross, chair of the new all-party parliamentary group Old and Young Together: Intergenerational Futures, says the time has come for intergenerational practice to be given a 'much higher profile'.

The former chief executive of Age Concern adds, 'There's a lot of fear and lack of understanding between the old and young, and I think it's worse than it used to be. Greater understanding can come from young and old introducing each other to the worlds in which they live, and people enjoy that.'

Given the potential benefits, Denise Burke is keen for local authorities to follow Merton's lead. 'Merton is the first of many children's centres that could evolve into an intergenerational centre, but we can't afford to wait until it is complete, because the remaining 1,000 children's centres will be in full development mode by then,' she says.

'This is a huge opportunity and ministers need to sell the idea to all the local authorities that children's centres should have a broader remit. We'd also encourage existing children's centres to look at incorporating intergenerational services, but it shouldn't be just a bolt-on.'

Some children's centres have elements of intergenerational practice already. The Children's Society runs 12 children's centres and is tendering for more, and, says its policy development advisor Patricia Durr, 'We already see our children's centres as serving the interests of the whole community, and grandparents are an integral part of many of our centres. We value the emphasis on early years and wouldn't want that focus to be lost, but don't see that as a barrier to involving the rest of the community.'

Alan Hatton-Yeo has concerns about public perception - perhaps 'once a children's centre, always a children's centre' - but he adds, 'Intergenerational practice isn't a different way of working; it's about asking serious questions about how older people could be used. Involving other groups brings mutual benefits, and it's incredibly cost-effective.'

Crossing continents

The origins of intergenerational practice lie in North America in the late 1960s and 1970s, when social and demographic change started to erode traditional family and community structures.

By the 1980s, intergenerational work was seen as a way of helping vulnerable young and old alike. Into the 1990s, programmes became viewed as a way to revitalise communities.

There are now more than 700 varied schemes across the UK. In one, for example, older motorcycle enthusiasts teach young men about bike maintenance as a route into employment; in another, older women teach young mothers budgeting skills. Increasingly, schools are using older mentors; Derbyshire has developed a resource pack for its schools.

'Local authorities are taking a lot of the initiative,' says Louise Middleton. At a national level, says Alan Hatton-Yeo, 'England is lagging behind the three devolved countries.' Northern Ireland has a strategy group, while Wales and Scotland both have strategies for older people and intergenerational practice centres. Wales is also devising an intergenerational strategy, due out for consultation in June.

There are signs of change in England, however. As well as the new all-party parliamentary group, children's minister Beverley Hughes chaired a ministerial round-table discussion on the subject in March, and a cross-departmental working party is meeting monthly 'to consider how the Government can best highlight the benefits of intergenerational practice and support more intergenerational activity in the future,' says a DCSF spokesperson.

'What we're seeing now across various Government departments is that intergenerational practice is being viewed as an effective way of meeting different policy initiatives,' says Alan Hatton-Yeo.

Challenges will remain. To date, the spread of intergenerational practice has been constrained by budgets, statutory obligations and health and safety concerns, resulting in fragmented and costly service provision.

Marion Dowling says, 'I'm all for a development like the Merton centre, but there are always dangers of such an initiative becoming territorial and extremely complicated to organise - you sometimes see these tensions emerge in some children's centres. Leadership of such projects will be absolutely key.'

Mr Hatton-Yeo remains optimistic. 'Once people start seeing that intergenerational practice makes perfect sense, it engages their passion.'

More information:

- 'Britain's Mean Streets' by Catherine Mayer, Time, 26 March 2008, www.time.com

- The Beth Johnson Foundation, www.bjf.org.uk

- Centre for Intergenerational Practice, part of the Beth Johnson Foundation, www.centreforip.org.uk

- The Scottish Centre for Intergenerational Practice, www.scotcip.org.uk/

- Information on Wales' strategy for older people is available at: http://new.wales.gov.uk/topics/olderpeople

- A London conference exploring the potential of intergenerational working is scheduled for Wednesday, 18 June. For information on 'Safer and Stronger Communities - Creating caring neighbourhoods for all ages', organised by 4Children in partnership with counsel + care, visit www.4Children.org.uk/intergenerational08

Demographic changes

- Numbers of over-65s to rise from 9.25 million to 12 million between 1996 and 2021

- Life expectancy to increase from 74.3 years to 79.5 years for men, and from 79.5 years to 82.6 years for women between 1996 and 2021

- Numbers of people aged under 16 to fall from 12 million to just over 10 million between 1996 and 2061

A Review of Intergenerational Practice in the UK (2002) by Dr Gillian Granville for the Beth Johnson Foundation.

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