In an age of mounting healthcare costs, ageing populations, and austerity-riven government services, progressive ways to support the well-being of marginalised groups need our support.
The concept of intergenerational care - combining nurseries or schools with care homes or day centres - has been around for some time.
The first intergenerational facilities emerged in Japan in the 1970s, before spreading to the US, and since around the world.
In the UK however, we lag far behind such developments.
It’s taken until 2017 for the first dedicated intergenerational facility in the UK to open - Nightingale House in Wandsworth, London.
Since opening its doors, Nightingale House has integrated older residents and children on a regular basis by having a nursery and a care home on the same site, delivering the school curriculum and elderly care at the same time.
Buoyed by television shows like Channel 4’s Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds, which charted the impact of introducing a pre-school class to a group of older people, another forty centres like Nightingale House have opened up around the country, with others in development.
Yet, despite such positive movements, intergenerational facilities remain in the minority. And this reflects a broader story.
Even as intergenerational families are once again on the rise - thanks to the rising economic pressures of twenty-first century Britain - broader opportunities for intergenerational interaction are declining.
Only 5% of those over the age of sixty-five have any form of structured contact with younger people.
When put in the context of rising healthcare costs, an ageing population, and an adult social care sector riven by austerity, this is an opportunity sorely missed.
Whether it’s younger and older generations singing songs together, or spending time with one another as part of a formal care setting, there is a growing body of evidence demonstrating the benefits of intergenerational interaction.
For younger people, spending time with older generations helps them develop their literacy levels, their processes of language development, and their reading and social skills.
More broadly, research from Stanford describes, intergenerational interaction offers younger people the potential to find role models and motivation in life; a sense of belonging to community and a purpose that supports their well-being, which may otherwise be hard to find.
For older people, intergenerational interaction can be beneficial too. From reducing depression, anxiety, isolation and loneliness, creating a better outlook on life, and building relationships that provide a sense of purpose, to delaying mental decline, lowering blood pressure, and breaking down age-based stereotypes.
These revelations are particularly powerful given the broader context of an epidemic of loneliness facing older generations, which is otherwise so harmful to their health.
And these positive effects extend to those living with dementia too. Active practitioners of the intergenerational approach and increasing numbers of academic studies report benefits ranging from improved engagement, communication and confidence that reduce isolation and increase participation, to improvements in sense of self, performance in memory tests, and providing a sense of purpose.
It’s for all these reasons that Alan Hatton-Yeo, founder of the UK’s Centre for Intergenerational Practice, says:
"Young and old people are great assets to each other and to their wider communities. We need to recognise the amazing potential that they have to contribute to society”.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) describes how evidence from around the world shows intergenerational interaction helping to improve broader health outcomes.
Accordingly, NICE sees the use of intergenerational activities as a vital salve in the face of the rising costs of care, recommending that local authorities support and provide such schemes where possible.
In the UK however, the ability to do so is uneven.
There are government-backed strategies for intergenerational activities in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.
But this hasn’t extended to England, where intergenerational schemes tend to be patchy, small scale and run by community organisations vulnerable to funding cuts and reliant on lottery grants.
Despite the clear benefits to be had from promoting the intergenerational approach, this uneven picture means - particularly in the context of an adult social care sector already threatened with collapse due to a mounting crisis of funding - access and reach may remain limited.
At The Music Project, we’ve spent the last fifteen years using the intergenerational approach - in combination with music - to support people in marginalised groups, such as those living with dementia and learning difficulties.
For us, the benefits of doing so have always been clear, and the progress we’ve seen in recent years around the UK offers room for optimism.
But there is still a long way to go, and progress will remain limited while the support necessary for this approach to thrive remains absent.
Nonetheless, we like many other organisations continue to promote such vital work however we can.
Our latest effort in doing so has been our Harlesden project, with Tesco Bags of Help and Groundwork UK.
You can read more about this project here; follow us on social media to keep up to date with our project news; or if you’re interested in partnering with us to develop something similar, please reach out directly.