From May-June 2017, together with Scout Leader Lisa, I facilitated an intergenerational project between the residents of Fairmile Grange and the Christchurch Air Scout Group. The aim was to give residents and children the opportunity to share, exchange and learn from each other through creative activities. This project was inspired by my experience of working for Project Phakama’s The Edible Garden.
The Beavers visited the residents every other week and worked together to explore different themes, such as gardening, animals, and cooking. The activities included creating flower compositions; making bird feeders; and baking using vintage and natural ingredients from the garden, followed by blindfolded food tasting, amongst other activities. The project ended with a garden party where The Beavers presented pictures of the project to the residents so that the home could display them. The Beavers also received their badges, in front of our residents, during an awards ceremony.
Working on this project before starting my PhD was extremely useful in developing my critical inquiry and reflecting on what worked, but also what did not and what could be improved.
Setting up the project
A couple of months before the start of the project, Lisa and I met for a planning session and discussed the children and residents’ interests and abilities. This exchange then led to a detailed schedule of the activities which will be taking place at each session. We also agreed that I would give the Beavers a ‘dementia friend session’ and training workshop before the project starts, to help prepare them to interact with people with dementia.
From Fairmile’s side, I needed to evaluate the resident’s interest and see who would be keen on taking part. I generally met a very positive response from the residents, who seemed eager to see the children. However, I also met a few resistances. For example, one of the ladies at Fairmile did not want to join as she was afraid that it would remind her of her own grandchildren, that she had not seen in years. Two other residents were also worried about the disruption that it might cause.
When a project takes place in a care home, it is important to remember that it is not a neutral space, but it is indeed, the home of the residents. I was important to acknowledge people’s concerns and to try and minimise disruption, although it can sometimes be challenging.
After talking to the Home Manager, we agreed that the project would take part in the dinner area located on the lower ground floor, in front of the reception doors. In this way, the children will not have to travel within the care home and the residents could still access the living room space if they wished to watch TV and socialise in between them.
The project took place in the evenings after everyone had finished their meals, so residents could easily choose to join or not. This time was also chosen in response to the demand of many residents to have evening activities, as they were often feeling lonely after dinner.
It was clear from the smile on their faces and positive body language that the residents enjoyed the presence of the children. Many residents who do not usually join in regular activities were present at every single session and said that they ‘did not want to miss out’ on the Beaver’s visit. The residents, even in the most advanced stage of dementia, were keen to interact, to learn more about the children and tell them about themselves. One of the ladies with advanced dementia, who used to be a Head Mistress, even took an active role in teaching and mentoring the Beavers. The feedback session which took place after the project, with the residents and their families, was also very positive and many people asked if the children would come back in the future.
From the children’s side, it was interesting to see the shift in some of the Beavers attitude over the sessions. From being a little shy on their first visit and staying grouped with their friends, the children started to relax with the residents and begin to more actively interact with them. Some of them, who had family members living with dementia, progressively opened up about it, drawing a comparison to their grandparents. The feedback given by the Beaver’s parents was also positive, mentioning that the children were keen to join the sessions and were proud of what they had learned and made with the residents.
However, it is also important to point out to some of the challenges of the project. Firstly, we were dealing with a large group of children (around 20 Beavers) which meant that the ratio was often three children to one resident. Although staff members were present to supervise the groups, it was sometimes difficult for the person with dementia to actively interact with several children at the same time, especially when these were friends and thus had a tendency to talk in between them. As the session went on, we then decided to mix the children out of their friendship groups to limit this situation.
Secondly, children and residents had different cultural backgrounds. Having been raised at a different time, their notion of what is rude, polite or acceptable was sometimes different. I remember one of our residents, with advanced Alzheimer’s, getting upset because he believed that behavior of two of the little boys was incorrect.
Finally, having such a big group of young people caused noises and disturbances which sometimes were overwhelming to people with dementia. Several residents, although happy to participate, decided to go back to their room a little before the end of the session due to noise and tiredness.
Reflection for future practice
These challenges open a range of questions on how to facilitate intergenerational projects. For the future, I think that one to one work could be less overwhelming and more beneficial to both residents and students.
This project also opens up further questions regarding the challenges posed by cultural differences. I think it is important not to idealise intergenerational interactions and acknowledge the differences in people’s personality, knowledge, background and life experience. More time should be spent in pairing appropriately children and residents and introduce them to each other.
More training and preparation would also be useful to help staff facilitating the project and support both children and people with dementia in the process.
Finally, due to time, budget and staff restrictions, an in-depth evaluation is often not possible for such initiative. Stronger evaluation methods would be needed to efficiently measure the outcomes of such projects.