In these days when experts talk about the importance of bringing the generations together, Downshall Primary School in Essex has shown how it’s done, resulting in extraordinary benefits for both the children and the older people involved.

The children’s school progress almost doubled that of the national average.  Nationally, over the year reception age children make six steps of progress, but at Downshill Primary School in Ilford they make 10.

The project is one of a growing number of intergenerational initiatives in the UK designed to bring benefits to both old and young, while helping to fill the gaps left by cuts to local community support services. Older adults experiencing isolation, depression and early dementia are referred to the project by health teams. They then come into school with volunteer support workers and take part in regular activities including music, reading and games with reception and year 4 children.  The children’s progress is monitored to measure impact.

The biggest impact seen in developing relationships – an important measure among young children – with marked improvements in communication, language, reading and writing.  Contrary to usual trends, boys make better progress than girls. “The project has gone from strength to strength,” said the headteacher, Ian Bennett. “The children have made such improvements across the board.”[i]

He said that the children’s needs are paramount, but participating adults benefit hugely from purposeful activity, enjoying helping others and socialising not only with the children but other older adults. “The project has gone from strength to strength.” We are really making a difference to lives.

One of the participants said she looked forward to seeing the children every week and missed them during the holidays. “I feel this project is such a good idea, said Sara Apoolingum, “I do get lonely but when I’m here I’m always surrounded by good company. I feel every moment I spend here is magical, whether it’s with the children or all the adults.”

The project was set up two years ago by David Hinchcliffe, a consultant old age psychiatrist at North East London NIH Foundation Trust, to try to tackle the growing problem of loneliness and isolation.  He said, “Local authorities have had their budgets slashed for a number of years. We are having to think creatively about how we can come together as a community and keep everybody engaged and active.”

Primary schools in neighbouring boroughs and other mental health trusts have also expressed interest in developing similar initiatives, and links being forged between care homes, nursery and primary schools across the UK.  They have existing for many years in  PFS’s housing and care homes.  On one occasion a group of older people from our Extra Care housing in Yorkshire visited a local school and described how they lived and what they did when they were the same age as the children’s.  The children couldn’t imagine life without iPads, and television. In our care home in Wantage, during a week commemorating the end of World War II, school pupils visited to interview residents and were fascinated by their stories of wartime black-outs and rationing.

Older people helping the younger has always been part of God’s plan. The book, ‘What’s Age Got to Do With It?’ shows how God designed old age on purpose, to be a blessing to their families and society in general.  Encouraging little children – as any grandparent will tell you – is one way they are doing it.

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Louise Morse

Louise Morse MA (CBT) is media and external relations manager for the Pilgrims’ Friend Society. She is a writer and speaker, and author of books on issues of old age, including dementia, published by Lion Monarch and SPCK. She is a cognitive behavioural therapist, and her Masters’ dissertation examined the effects of caring for a loved one with dementia on close relatives.

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