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The sense of worthlessness and isolation that some older adults experience can be offset by participation in organized intergenerational activities

The recent screening of ‘Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds’ on Channel 4 Television has generated extensive media and public interest within the UK. However, the concept of intergenerational activities is not new. Young children and older adults have been successfully sharing day care facilities in the US, Europe and in other countries for a number of years. The positive effects for both age groups, including elevation of mood and increased physical activity, are also well known.

However, limited data exists that shows the effects of introducing young children into a retirement residential setting for older adults over a limited time period measuring the effects on their behaviour and mood. The measurement tools adopted in the recent social intergenerational experiment, here in the UK, identified significant positive changes in the residents. But whilst the emphasis was on measuring behaviour change in the adults, effects on the younger group should also be considered.

The Channel 4 programme highlighted what has been known for a long time, that loneliness and depression in older people in residential homes within the UK are set to reach epidemic proportions and that society appears inert and oblivious to the extent of the problem and of how to manage it. The sense of hopelessness, sadness, the mundane, and residing in ‘God’s waiting room’, as one of the residents in the experiment so aptly described their stay, appear to pervade the thoughts of the majority of residents on a day-to-day basis. It is clear from the viewing figures of over two point five million and the extensive commentary on social media, that there is genuine interest for trialling the idea of intergenerational programmes in other parts of the country, but people appear to be unsure of how and where to begin.

Pockets of successful intergenerational programmes and activities already exist across the UK but they are not well-known, neither are their outcomes disseminated to allow others to learn and inform developments of their own. These schemes are also sometimes temporary and may depend on local enthusiasm and goodwill.

Initiating a permanent strategy to tackle the rising tide of depression and loneliness in residential homes for older adults requires policy makers, health commissioners, local authorities, managers and the private sector to recognise the level of the problem and to take steps to effectively tackle it. It necessitates a more strategic approach to facilitate and resource more extensive schemes and to develop and offer clear guidelines for initiating, planning and evaluating the effectiveness of schemes nationally. A review of the confluence of government policy on health, social care and education to tackle this issue might not be a simple one, but it has already been shown that practical solutions have been found and that some of these areas have been assimilated in intergenerational schemes that already exist.

Whilst the groundswell of goodwill and empathy triggered by ‘Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds’ is laudable, it is insufficient in managing loneliness and depression in older adults in residential accommodation. The opportunity exists for government and local authority to take action and to make intergenerational activities part of mainstream education, health and social care strategy.