Talkin’ ‘bout my generation

September 2016

JUDE BARBACK looks at the benefits, challenges, practicalities and limitations of intergenerational activities.


My GenerationIt was “Poppa Jim” Battersby who inspired the agreement between Metlifecare and the Auckland Kindergarten Association (AKA). Ninety-one-year-old Jim Battersby, a resident at Metlifecare’s Hillsborough Heights, has been a friend of nearby Roskill South Kindergarten for the past four years. He was walking past the kindergarten one day when he heard children laughing over the fence. He asked for an introduction and head teacher Karen Ramsey took him on for a ‘trial’ period. He has been visiting the kindy every Tuesday since then. He is such a special visitor that he even has his own special chair at the kindy, where he reads stories to the children.

“Jim’s desire for other residents to experience the friendship and fun that he continues to enjoy inspired us to formalise an agreement and we look forward to a long association with AKA,” says Metlifecare chief executive Glen Sowry.

Children from a number of AKA kindergartens meet with residents from various Metlifecare retirement villages around Auckland, where they learn and interact with one another through all manner of planned activities, including craft sessions and storytelling. The partnership between the aged care and early childhood providers is beginning to flourish.

Body of evidence

There is nothing especially new about the concept of getting young and old to interact.

Most rest homes will from time to time arrange for the local primary school choir to come and sing to their residents, or a visit from the preschool children down the road. But the major benefit of introducing more extended and formalised intergenerational activities is watching the relationships between children and residents grow and witnessing a deeper sense of empathy and understanding emerge on both sides that shows many benefits for both children and elders. She expects the children involved in the Metlifecare initiative to gain a better understanding of older people while enhancing their social skills as they develop friendships in a safe environment.

“We also expect Metlifecare residents to benefit from the experience. Developing new friendships with the children will help alleviate loneliness, giving them something to look forward to each week while providing opportunities to experience fun and laughter, to be young again, to share their skills and expertise and to be more physically active.”

It’s no surprise that promoting intergenerational activities like this is one of the Ministry of Social Development’s goals in its Positive Ageing Strategy. Thanks to a growing body of research on this topic, it’s now widely accepted that good things come from intergenerational activity.

Intergenerational researcher Professor Matthew Kaplan from Penn State University says the call for increased intergenerational engagement is coming from many directions.

“We see it in newspaper editorials providing commentary on the increased sense of social isolation experienced by many young people and older adults. The theme is also finding its way into the publications and meetings conducted by professional societies in a broad range of fields, including education, volunteerism, child development, service learning, and gerontology.”

He points to a “growing recognition that these efforts to facilitate meaningful intergenerational engagement will enhance the quality of people’s lives, strengthen communities, and contribute to needed societal-level change”.

Intergenerational activities in action

Across the Tasman, a KITE (Kids Interacting with the Elderly) programme sees preschoolers from Tasmania’s St Michael’s Collegiate School Early Learning Centre interacting with residents of nearby Bishop Davies Court, an aged care residential centre managed by OneCare.

The KITE programme encompasses babes in arms, toddlers, and children up to the age of four.

“Babies and the elderly enjoy the experience of being together, of being nursed or nursing, and indeed for the elderly, just watching and enjoying the activity that surrounds young babies as they begin to crawl and explore can bring joy. For older children the experience broadens so that they talk, read, do puzzles, listen, and spend time doing shared activities,” says Dr Julie Rimes, director of the Collegiate Institute in Hobart.

Both generations are equally intrigued about using iPads, she says. They delight in the exploration, the games, and the fun contained within this light and easy-to-use technology. The activities that the elderly participate in will depend on their physical, social, emotional, and cognitive abilities.

Another Australian success story sees residents at Group Homes Australia sharing a regular 40-minute story time session with Family Day Care children. The residents – who are all living with dementia – and children read their favourite stories, sing nursery rhymes and enjoy conversation together.

The carers note how animated, settled and content the residents are during the children’s visit and how happy they are long after the children have gone.

Tamar Krebs, CEO of Group Homes Australia, says, “For our residents, for a moment in time they feel needed again, they have a purpose to read to the children and engage in something meaningful.”

Back here in New Zealand, Aria Gardens Home and Hospital have established a successful Adopt-a-Grandparent initiative, which sees residents interacting with slightly older children at nearby Albany Primary School. The scheme started with a pilot in 2013, with a group of residents and a class of year 6 (10-year-old) children. Prior to the launch of the initiative, the children had some education around the ageing process, the life cycle, issues around death and dying and barriers to effective communication.

The pilot scheme ran until December 2013. Evaluations and feedback were taken from residents, children, parents and teaching staff. The children were asked to write a one-page reflective essay on what they learnt from the experience and the essays showed not only an increased awareness of age-related issues but also increased self-awareness and confidence when meeting older adults and a developing advanced empathy towards the elderly.  

As part of the programme, the children were also taught about effective communication techniques for those with cognitive or sensory impairment, undertaken by manager Jon Amesbury and the Speech and Language Therapy Department at Massey University. The children were taught the acronym ‘F.I.S.H’, representing: face-to-face communicating; introducing the topic; staying on the topic; and helping the other person if they forget what they were saying or
became stuck.

The initiative saw many fun activities emerge for the residents and school children, including a ‘Pimp My Ride’ session where the students customised residents’ wheelchairs and walking frames according to their favourite activities.

It also led to the introduction of ‘Primary Pals’, which involves quarterly correspondence from a group of students to every resident in the facility, irrespective of psychological or physical ability. The correspondence revolves around contemporary issues affecting the younger generation in New Zealand and relating to the past experiences of the older residents.

Amesbury said by exposing the older generation to the exuberance and pure enthusiasm of technologically advanced pre-teens and raising awareness and understanding with the children of the salient issues that can affect the elderly through experiential learning, education and positive reinforcement, they are attempting to stop that intergenerational divide becoming a chasm.


The ‘Neighbors Growing Together’ programme run by Virginia Tech in the United States has been studying the effects of intergenerational activities like these for over seven years.

They have discovered that older people are more positive and engaged during intergenerational activities than single generation activities, and activities that encouraged older adults to mentor young children gave them a chance to exercise choice, initiative and autonomy.

From the children’s side, the programme found that children were more comfortable around people with disabilities and older people in the community. The children also experienced a sense of purpose when they were able to teach or help older people.

The benefits extend beyond the old/young participants, with facilities reporting an increase in staff morale. Caregivers enjoy the chance to spend time with children as well, and also the relationships formed with staff from the participating day care or school.

As Rimes confirms, she received positive feedback from the aged care staff members participating in the KITE programme about how much they, like their residents, value the opportunities to see young, carefree and happy people in the aged care setting.

“The programme brings enjoyment, energy and enthusiasm to their setting,” she says.


Of course, programmes like KITE make it all sound so easy. Yet working with young children and frail older people can be challenging enough on its own, without combining the two generations. While most intergenerational activities are reportedly successful, it is important to be mindful of the challenges that facilitators face as well.

Staff who work with children or older adults are typically trained for caring at one end of the life course or the other and as a result they may be unfamiliar or even uncomfortable with the idea of coordinating an intergenerational activity.

Tried and true, a guide from Virginia Tech for running these activities, suggests providing intergenerational “cross-training” that orients staff to the clients, staff members, and care philosophy and practices of the other-generation.

The training gives the opportunity to discuss misconceptions, ideas and questions about intergenerational activities. Staff learn how to work with the other organisation’s clients and policies.

Intergenerational activities, like many activities launched in aged care facilities, are often initiated by one person with a great idea and a passion for the project. This person may take on the responsibility of creating, coordinating and implementing the programme. But if he or she leaves, the programme stands a high chance of fizzing out. Tried and true says administrative support is critical in helping to institutionalise an activity so that it endures regardless of staff turnover.

It is also important to think carefully about what activities are selected to engage both generations simultaneously. Connecting young and old can highlight generational and developmental differences between participants. For example, not all adults will want to play superheroes with kids, and not every child will be interested in bird watching. But there are plenty of hobbies and interests that are age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate for both groups. Cooking and gardening are just two examples.

Tried and true suggests getting to know a bit about the adults’ and children’s social history to help staff develop activities that speak to participants’ interest and expertise.

Generational differences can also contribute to how elders think children should behave. For example, an older adult might think it rude for a child to get up from an activity in progress just because she has lost interest in the activity, though this might be acceptable to childcare staff. It might be a good idea to discuss childcare practices and how they differ from older adults’ parenting practices.

Developmental differences can contribute to participants’ varied energy levels, attention spans, and tolerance of noise and mess. Intergenerational participation should always be voluntary.

Intergenerational housing – a stretch too far?

Perhaps this is why industry experts don’t expect there to be high demand for intergenerational housing models in New Zealand, which would see older people living together in a community with younger generations, sharing facilities.

Cam Ansell of Ansell Strategic says he can’t see it happening. He gives the example of a New Zealand operator who built a range of housing, including expensive units aimed at wealthier people, rental units aimed at the less wealthy and a nursing home – only to find that the wealthy residents didn’t want to mix with the poor or the disabled.

“If we can’t see social cohesion in a New Zealand retirement village then what chance have we for an intergenerational village?”

ASB’s Ross Currie agrees we’d need to see a significant cultural change before we saw intergenerational villages emerge.

“In general Kiwis in their old age don’t want to live with their kids and the kids don’t want their parents living with them. The kids would rather pay for their parents to have quality care if the parents can’t afford to pay for themselves. This is different from other cultures where it is normal to care for the older generation.”

That said, Currie believes operators should be future-focused in their thinking and should not discount the possibility of facilities being used by younger generations.

“New retirement village developments should contemplate a potentially declining population from around 2060 and include alternate uses in their design, primarily the facility being designed to also accommodate families and working-age couples. That would allow for the family generations to live in close proximity to each other so that the younger generation can look out for their parents without being under the same roof.”

Dylan Kneale and Sally-Marie Bamford from the International Longevity Centre-UK state that pitching generation against generation not only ignores the reality and fluctuations in the housing market, but also masks potential solutions. They believe we need to move away from division and instead consider a more intergenerational approach.

In the Guardian, they point to the merits of co-housing – the development of private households with shared facilities that invoke a sense of community. The rationale behind this idea is that older people can benefit from reduced levels of loneliness and isolation and increased levels of civic participation, while younger generations can also benefit in similar ways and through the provision of affordable housing.

“If we are to witness greater development of such schemes this will necessitate not only a change in values and attitudes, but a significant reappraisal of housing design and planning.”

Susan Bosak of the Legacy Project, which runs its programmes across the US and Canada, believes that life in a multigenerational, interdependent, richly complex community “teaches us how to be human”.

“If we can improve the standing of older adults in society and nurture what they can bring through intergenerational connections, then we can achieve a better community with a better quality of life for all ages.”

Such ideals, while laudable, are unlikely to gain traction in New Zealand just yet. However, while we may not be ready for intergenerational housing solutions, we should certainly be open to embracing activities and programmes that see our residents interacting and growing relationships with people of all ages. It is clearly worth the effort.

Generation table

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