In a society where more older Australians are feeling lonely and isolated, could interactions with young children have a permanent place in aged care?
Intergenerational practice is the coming together of young and old to share educational experiences, develop meaningful bonds and benefit from each other’s company. Although a relatively new concept in Australia, intergenerational care has been implemented in other parts of the world such as Europe and the USA for some time.
Why the separation to begin with?
There are many reasons why today’s over 65s may have few interactions with the youngest of Australians. Historically, multiple generations of families lived together or close by, with shared duties of caring for young and old members of the family. Now, people needing care are tucked away in facilities with those of a similar age. For older Australians, children and grandchildren may have migrated interstate or overseas. In addition, young children are increasingly spending time with their own age group in childcare facilities.
Whatever the reason, old and young spend less time together than they may have done in the past. People are also living longer, which may be further exacerbating the divide between the two ends of the age spectrum.
Intergenerational care in Australia
In Australia, no standards currently exist for intergenerational practice. Today, intergenerational care is considered as a community service; as a ‘nice thing to do’. However, researchers and many in the education and aged-care sectors are calling for intergenerational practice to be established as an evidence-based intervention, with benefits available to the young and the old.
Griffith University’s Professor Anneke Fitzgerald is Chief Investigator and Program Evaluation Lead of the Intergenerational Care Project — a two-year project that has assessed intergenerational practices across four research sites in Australia. The research investigated how intergenerational programs can become operational within different models of care, examining:
- the impact of an intergenerational learning program on child and older participants;
- the costs and socioeconomic implications of implementing an intergenerational learning program;
- the implications for workforce including staff retention and career development;
- the development of an evidence-based intergenerational learning framework linked to learning outcomes;
- the level of fidelity associated with the implementation of the research program.
Professor Fitzgerald explained that current studies of intergenerational practices are striving to form an evidence base that will lead to intergenerational activities being regarded as important, positive interventions; as something that a clinician might prescribe for an elderly patient with depression, for example.
“Our aim is that intergenerational practices will be established as a formal set-up — as specific programs where young and old mix for a specific purpose. These practices should be viewed as a positive intervention requiring implementation,” she said.
“We need to rethink intergenerational interaction as something that is nice to do, to something that is wise to do.”
Bringing two sectors together
Intergenerational practice encompasses the early childhood and aged-care sectors, meaning that multiple, complex considerations must be made to cater to the needs of young and old participants. Each sector falls under a different government department, with early childhood being categorised under education and aged care under health.
When considering if intergenerational activities should be considered under an education or health authority, the Griffith researchers and their partners believe it should be education. Government education standards in child care are rigorous and well enforced, and advocates want this for intergenerational practice.
Both ends of the age spectrum must be considered: what are the benefits to early learners as well as elderly learners? Learning in the context of older Australians tends to be disregarded — we know how children and adults learn but there is little to no understanding of how older people learn.
Theory of learning should feature in the equation because learning is reciprocal. Young children are learning, but so are elderly Australians. Frameworks need to be established to investigate how the over 65s learn when putting together a case for intergenerational practice implementation.
Ongoing research as an evidence base
The Griffith team are applying for an Australian Research Council grant to continue to build on the evidence base for integration of intergenerational practice to reduce isolation, improve social participation and address delinquency in children, as well as ageism and the perception of the elderly among young Australians.
Professor Fitzgerald said that research will need to focus not just on the behavioural aspects of intergenerational practices, but three interconnected arms: education at both ends of the age spectrum, sustainability of the workforce and socioeconomic factors.
The key is that research is ongoing to establish best and sustainable practices. Work in the area to date has often involved passionate individuals who run intergenerational programs, but these programs often phase out when that individual moves on.
To sustain intergenerational practices, new career pathways will need to be explored to ensure the longevity of an intergenerational workforce. Career pathways encompassing aged care and child care will be needed to establish a skilled and dedicated workforce to implement and carry forward intergenerational practices.
Not just for preschoolers
Media coverage of intergenerational care in Australia has been predominantly in the form of the social experiment documented in the ABC series Old People’s Home For 4 Year Olds. However, preschoolers are not the only cohort of young Australians that can be successfully involved in intergenerational activities. For example, activities involving aged-care residents and school-age children have taken place, involving one-hour videoconferencing sessions twice a week, where students ask older Australians questions about the Second World War. Sharing experiences and coming together removes the concept of us and them, and the othering of Australia’s elderly population.
To implement policies and standards, politicians want numbers and proof that a given intervention really makes a difference, and this is what the researchers are working to demonstrate — that intergenerational practice has a proven, beneficial impact on resilience, hope, social integration and wellbeing for all involved.
Findings of the Intergenerational Care Project
Examining intergenerational activities in two different settings — a shared care campus where aged care and child care are located on the same premises and a visitation model in which one or both groups travel to the other — the Griffith project found that, over 16 weeks, aged-care recipients and preschoolers formed special bonds.
Mood scores improved and, through interactions with children, older participants were able to reaffirm their feelings of importance, reflect on their achievements, re-learn things they already knew or had forgotten and have a positive sense of wellbeing.