Playing with children can improve the mental and physical health of older people CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES CONTRIBUTOR
I was completely blown away by the results of Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds – a 10-week experiment I worked on for Channel 4 about the benefits of intergenerational mixing. Therefore it’s great news that Nightingale House, the first nursing home in the UK to share its site with a nursery, will prescribe depressed residents play sessions with children.
I am an expert in biogerontology, which is the science of how ageing works. I used my expertise to make sure that the experiments in the programme were scientifically rigorous, working with a diverse group of older adults, some fitter than others, and all of different ages. However – whatever the health or age of participants, playing with the four-year-olds had benefits for mental and physical health.
I was stunned by the improvements to 102-year-old Sylvia’s health. At the start of the experiment she was doing well for her age, but was frail and eating very little.
After 10 weeks she was eating like a horse, and had improved on almost every measure that we tested. Her physical fitness had improved, she was stronger and she was sharper in her thinking, just from spending time with children.
Even more amazing was the difference to the health of Ken, 87. You might think that it’s impossible to be lonely in a retirement home surrounded by others. However, it’s easy to stay inside your own flat all day if you don’t have a psychological draw to get out. That is what had happened to Ken.
He had moved into the retirement village with his wife Barbara after a life of adventure together, living across several continents and seeing the world.
They picked out a large bungalow on the edge of the village for themselves and planned to spend a happy life there. Tragically, Barbara passed away not long after arriving, leaving Ken without his life partner and living alone in a large property that was slightly on the outside. He was emotionally and physically isolated and utterly bereft without Barbara.
When I met him on day one he wasn’t very bubbly or particularly exuberant, and spent a lot of time by himself in the bungalow. Being alone and dealing with the death of his wife had made him depressed. He just didn’t come across as a very positive person.
However, he was completely transformed after the children arrived, bonding particularly with a girl called Lily and her family.
After just a few weeks you could see the changes – he had a big smile on his face and was noticeably excited to talk to me.
He kept on improving, each week becoming less isolated. His connection with Lily and the other children helped him form new networks with other residents in the home. He has so many new friends, including a neighbour called Fred. The pair of them are a double act now.
He still sees Lily and her family – the friendships built over the 10 weeks haven’t gone away.
hen you go into a retirement home there are many things which could trigger bad mental health – it’s hard to define who you are if you no longer have your job, your spouse or your family. It can make people feel like they don’t have a reason to live anymore.
We need to be vigilant about loneliness. It is not only unpleasant – it’s also incredibly dangerous, and is as bad for your health as smoking.
In my own family we practise the benefits of intergenerational mixing. My 86-year-old mother regularly takes care of my nieces, aged 3 and 5, and my 12-year old nephew.
It keeps her going, and helps to give her a new identity of being a grandmother. She’s incredibly proud of them and loves having the noise of children around again. When they leave she says the house feels empty.
With this generation of children being brought up by parents who are so busy they give them iPads we’re missing a trick by not including grandparents (and great-grandparents) more.
It’s great social education for children, and works wonders for the mental and physical health of the adults. Older people have so much to share – not including them is waste of the experience they have built up over decades.
ven my own ties with the residents continued after filming finished. Both my wife and I found we had bonded with the older people. We do our bit and visit once a month.
As told to Helen Chandler-Wilde