The lyrics of Old MacDonald may be familiar to many a generation, but it is fair to say that E-I-E-I-O is not what you would typically expect to hear when you step foot into a care home. It was exactly that though that echoed out of a room at one Yorkshire facility last Wednesday.
Within minutes of children arriving to visit elderly residents, 77-year-old Sylvia Carnegie had a puppet on her hand. Her joy was evident in the animated way she moved the character along her zimmer frame, as young and old alike joined in with the nursery rhyme rendition.
“I love it. I love children,” she says with a smile when I catch up with her afterwards. “It’s quiet normally. There’s not many people about. This is lovely. I think it’s great to see them all here. I think they need us as much as we need them...I think you forget what it is like to be young like this. This reminds us.”
Sylvia lives at Holyrood House care home in Knottingley, West Yorkshire, which for nearing six months has been involved in an inter-generational project with nearby charity The Old Quarry Adventure Playground. On the first Wednesday of each month, The Addy, as it is known, has been taking its under 5s Wild Tots group out to Holyrood, to around 15 residents.
“It really improves social interaction for both the older people and younger people,” explains Holly Corbett, centre manager. “Also we find that the children see the elderly people in a role model way which is really nice because some people that live there don’t get any visits from young people or families. They are alone a little bit.
“Spirits are really lifted when we walk into the room. Some of the residents don’t speak to anybody all week and as soon as they see the children, their faces light up.”
Friendships are beginning to form, she says, recalling a rather heartwarming comment from one child who likened an older resident to an “adopted grandma”. “We have found that this is the most natural session that we actually do. Bringing them together happens naturally - we don’t have to do much at all.”
The Addy already had links with the care home, inviting its residents over for Christmas dinner, but it received funding from Asda at nearby Glasshoughton to be able to run this scheme for a year. Both the children and older adults can get involved in activities including singing, dancing and arts and crafts.
Whilst some get stuck in - one man soon had rabbit ears on his head and another woman welcomed a child and her doll onto her lap - others are happy to just watch.
“The residents get so much out of just watching the children and it makes them think about their children,” says Nicola Pitchford, activities coordinator at Holyrood. “One man, his face lights up when the children start singing. We’ve had tears.”
Laura Ford has attended nearly all of the sessions with her children Leonora, three, and Thomasin, one. “I think it is really beneficial for my little ones in particular to make relationships and form bonds with people who aren’t just their own age,” she says. “It seems to perk them (the older people) up and even when they don’t join in, you can see they are watching the children and it makes their day. You can see they enjoy it.”
The project began around the time that the second series of Channel 4 show Old People’s Home for Four-Year-Olds aired last October. The first series, the previous year, saw a nursery open inside a retirement community in Bristol in a move to tackle isolation among older people.
It was the first experiment in the UK to measure the impact of inter-generational interaction on the health and happiness of older people - and the results were overwhelmingly positive.
Mood, memory and mobility was assessed, and after six weeks of children and elderly people engaging physically and socially, 80 per cent of the older participants showed improvement. For series two, a second, longer experiment took place at a retirement village in Nottingham, again testing the older generation, as well as assessing the effect on children, this time over three months.
“We witnessed huge changes in both of the groups,” says Trish Powell, executive producer of both series. “For children, it was their development of social skills and confidence. In the older group, we shouldn’t underestimate also the impact of improving their confidence so that they go out and do things.”
One of the aims of the experiments was to inspire long-term solutions in older care throughout the UK, and one of the show’s biggest achievements, says Trish, is that it has got the nation talking. It certainly appears true that the show struck a chord; its moving results have prompted inter-generational projects up and down the country, including in Yorkshire.
Nikki Baum launched Boogie Babes Generations in North Yorkshire on the back of the programme and now runs classes for pre-school children in care homes in Harrogate and Wetherby. The sessions involve parachute games, pom poms, songs and dancing.
“They (the care home residents) have all got smiles on their faces and music seems to wake something up within them,” she says. “It’s an hour of smiles, laughter and fun.”
She says such schemes are “becoming more and more important”, in a mobile society where families often live a distance apart. “I think it’s bridging a gap, particularly with isolation, and with boredom as well.”
In Sheffield, Anne Connolly runs Rattle in Retirement, which delivers music, sensory and movement sessions to children aged five and under, within care homes. The idea came about after she saw a clip online of a nursery in a nursing home in America. Ten homes are currently involved, including four where a year of weekly sessions has been paid for through Sheffield City Council’s Dementia Innovation Fund.
“For the children and babies, the sessions themselves are educational anyway and the interaction with the older people is giving them a new life experience and the chance to bond with somebody outside of their families.”
With activities such as throw and catch, as well as dancing, she says it is also helping older people to become more active - and “they are getting interaction so it’s helping with any loneliness they might have”.
Back in Knottingley, the emotional and psychological impact of the scheme is evident too, says Holly. “The residents have said to us ‘this is the best day I’ve had for months’.”
Similar anecdotes are emerging from inter-generational schemes up and down the country - and back in October health and social care secretary Matt Hancock recognised their benefits.
Perhaps then it won’t be long now until the dulcet tones of Old MacDonald ringing out from young and old together becomes the norm.