Connecting Australia’s young and old – for a healthier and stronger community

You wouldn’t be alone in thinking that frailty is something that just happens as we age, but this is not the case. Frailty is a decline of physical and cognitive reserve that leads to increased vulnerability and sees people lose their independence, go into aged care earlier, become isolated and suffer poor health. It is not a natural consequence of aging. Frailty can be prevented or even reversed with the right intervention.

NeuRA’s research into intergenerational integration seeks to provide a rigorous evidence base to prove that bringing older adults together with preschoolers in a structured program of activity is indeed effective in combating frailty. We want to help older adults retain their independence and quality of life as they age.

I’m Associate Professor Ruth Peters, a Senior Research Scientist here at NeuRA and Conjoint Associate Professor at UNSW Sydney. I’m proud to be leading the Intergenerational Integration Initiative, a study aimed to combat the widespread issue of frailty and its associated health implications as experienced by older Australians today.

There are approximately four million Australians currently over the age of 65, with this number expected to climb to 8.8 million by 2057. Currently, 12-24% of those over 65 are already considered frail and 40% prefrail. And about 500 Australians become frail every day.

Because frailty impacts various aspects of a person’s health and wellbeing, we’ve established that interventions combining physical, cognitive and social aspects are most likely to be beneficial. One way to do this is by bringing young and old together in activities that use the brain, body, social skills, and, most importantly are fun!

The official name for this is ‘intergenerational practice’ and it is aimed at bringing mutual benefit to both old and young. If it is effective, intergenerational practice is something that could happen right across Australia, anywhere where there are older adults and children in our communities.

This is why we are focusing our efforts on firstly, testing the effectiveness of intergenerational practice, its effective implementation in the community; and eventually, on providing the training and tools to help people to use effective intergenerational practice at little cost.

Bringing intergenerational practice from the TV screen to everyday life

Our study is inspired by the heartwarming ABC TV series, Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds.

The series took us on a journey each week, getting to know the group of adorable preschoolers and their older co-participants. While I was laughing and crying along with the rest of Australia, I was intrigued to know if a program like this could actually significantly improve the health and lives of older Australians and preschoolers across the country.

We think that a program like this could lead to better physical health and cognition among older adults, as well as better interpersonal skills among children under the age of five. In our initial community survey, more than 92% of respondents said they believe intergenerational programs have the potential to:

  1. increase understanding and friendships across generations
  2. provide unique learning opportunities and improve communication skills in children
  3. reduce loneliness and social isolation in older adults.

After receiving such a positive response from the community, we designed and delivered a feasibility project at the end of last year at a preschool in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. Along with the 20 participants and the preschool teachers, our team included psychologists and geriatricians from UNSW, University of Sydney and Griffith University.

We were thrilled to show that it was feasible to set up and run such a program in the community and were able to test out a series of scientifically-validated tests to measure a variety of parameters of the older participants’ health and mood, physical functions such as balance and grip strength, and thinking skills.

The children also had various age-appropriate assessments, including emotion and language. We are now taking the next step to expand our work in a new study where we will be able to collect follow-up assessments and to run the intergenerational sessions at more than one site.

Can you help us continue this vital research to prove the effectiveness of intergenerational practice? A generous donation would make such a difference.

“It brings you out of yourself and makes you feel needed and useful.” – Jan
One pilot participant, Jan Roberts, said the pilot program was ‘liberating, stimulating and life-changing’. Having moved to Coogee with her husband after living in Bronte for 20 years, Jan was feeling disconnected from her community.

“I wanted to make friends and interact with children. I am very close to my eight-year-old grandson and miss him dearly after he and my daughter moved overseas,” Jan says.

Jan connected with the children and the ‘oldies’ as she affectionately calls them, but developed a particularly close bond with a few of the four year olds during the trial.

“They became my mates and would save me a seat at lunchtime. We did races together and some of them taught me funny songs, which I still remember. We would have fascinating conversations,” Jan says.

“I absolutely loved the program. It was such a joy. I became a child again and was free to play and have fun. You stop thinking about things you cannot do, you want to join in so you push yourself. I was stretching myself physically and mentally.”

Things like dancing, races and musical chairs enhanced Jan’s physical ability, while having to concentrate on new tasks, teach things to her four-year-old friends and learn new things from them too, exercised her cognitive function.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 ended the program prematurely, but Jan kept in touch with some of the children and their families, they even met up at the park. They also stayed connected by sending messages, photos and videos on WhatsApp during lockdown. Jan loves the way being with the children made her feel and wants to be able to continue this type of program, if it’s made available in the future. We’re trying to make this happen!

The grandparent connection they’d been looking for

One of Jan’s new friends is Jonathan, aged four. His mum Eva told us that because his only grandparents live in Adelaide, she wanted him to experience making a friend and connection with an older person through participating in the trial.

“Even though the program ran on a day Jonathan didn’t usually attend preschool, after a few weeks he was really motivated to go once we told him it was to see the ‘old people’,” Eva says.

Jonathan says he enjoyed playing and making things with his new friends, including a necklace he brought home afterwards. Like Jan, he also enjoyed lunchtimes spent together chatting and having fun. It is known that intergenerational practice can transform children’s perspectives on older people and ageing.

“I’m really happy he got the opportunity to participate. I believe he enjoyed making a different kind of connection with the older people. He talked about it a lot, in particular people like Jan, whom he bonded with one-on-one, and he said he would do it again,” Eva says.

“A lot of extended families don’t live closeby, so things like these are very important to both children and adults. Older people are more calm and patient, they’re never in a hurry. It’s something that we working parents don’t always have the ability to show! And you can see the kids really warm to that.”

Can you help us provide experiences like this to more Australians, young and old?

Despite COVID-19 interrupting our research, we have still been able to learn a huge amount. Now we understand more about what works and what we could improve, we’ll take those findings into the extended trial this year.

This will focus on adults who might be a bit less healthy than average, for example those with difficulties walking or a long-term illness. Our goal over the next three to five years is to expand the intergenerational sessions to multiple sites across Greater Sydney and beyond.

But we need funding to make these next steps possible.

If you share our vision of the immense potential benefits of the Intergenerational Integration Initiative, please consider a generous donation today. With your support at this early stage, we have the opportunity to help so many older Australians lead healthier, more fulfilling, independent and connected lives as they age. Plus, they can instil a special empathy in younger generations that will be sustained throughout life.

Your support would mean the world to us, and we look forward to updating you on the future progress of the program as it unfolds. The secret to healthy ageing may be a lot closer, easier and simpler than people think – we just need the scientific evidence to prove it.

Yours sincerely,

Associate Professor Ruth Peters
Senior Research Scientist

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