Constructing intergenerational connections - and then came COVID-19!

Constructing intergenerational connections – and then came COVID-19!

Since the airing of the multi-award-winning, Channel 4 TV series Old Peoples Home for 4 year Olds (OPH4YO) in 2017, I have been overwhelmed by the growth and interest in developing intergenerational (IG) activities.

OPH4YO was a social experiment that brought old people and young children together to see what effect mixing the generations might have on decreasing isolation, loneliness and depression in the older adults. It became one of the most successful documentaries aired in 2017, attracting audiences in their millions. Awards have included a Broadcast Award, a Grierson Award, two Realscreen Awards, two Edinburgh TV Awards, two International Format Awards, and two BAFTA Award nominations.

IG activities have since grown around the country, with schemes such as the Afton Ward and Lanesend Primary School IG project attracting and improving intergenerational connections – in this instance between the IoW NHS Trust Hospital and a local school.

However, the arrival of Coronavirus-19 (Covid-19) and its lockdown and isolation policies may have destroyed thoughts of developing similar IG activities.

Previous concerns surrounding IG activities

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, there were different concerns about bringing older people and young children together. Health and safety, infection control, safeguarding, etc., were all considered to be of moderate risk, but research invariably showed that the benefits of IG activities for older people generally outweighed these risks. Similarly, concerns about children lacking understanding about frailty and morbidities affecting older people were dispelled by the growing evidence showing mutual benefit for participants in different age groups.

The growth of IG schemes is a testament of their success.

St Monica Trust, where the first OPH4YO was introduced, has continued to develop the concept of IG activities and promotes the approach across all of its residential homes. IG schemes in Scotland, Ireland and Wales have also grown in similar ways.

So what are the specific benefits of IG activities?

Briar and Owens (2019), in their review of mechanisms in IG practices, add to previous discussions of the benefits for children and older people from engaging in IG activities. These include children getting personalised time, opportunity to learn in a new context, development of language and communication skills, and a change in ageist perceptions of the capabilities of older people. IG activities for older people have been shown to not only reduce isolation, loneliness and depression, but also to reawaken cognitive and practical skills, increase physical activity, and rekindle a zest for life.

Whilst some older people might well choose solitude, maintaining human, social and family contact remain top priority for many, especially through times of crisis. The coronavirus pandemic has caused the brutal separation of people, significantly older people from loved ones including grandchildren, and broken the sometimes tenuous connections with their local communities.

Not only has Covid-19 created a forced separation of older people from vital lifelines but, in many instances, it has also robbed them of basic human touch.

Destruction and construction caused by Covid-19 on IG interactions

Covid-19 caused the drastic revision of the first National Intergenerational Week planned by St Monica Trust scheduled for 23rd March 2020. The week of nationwide celebration coincided exactly with the week in which the coronavirus lockdown began. Other IG programmes also came to an abrupt halt.

However, whilst Covid-19 may have severed physical contact across the generations, surprisingly, it has also created new opportunities and innovative ways for how the generations and communities engage. By force of necessity, some older people have been propelled into adopting digital technology to stay connected with their loved ones. Children have recreated the practice of having a pen pal to connect to and to share messages with older people who might have been isolated. WhatsApp groups for streets and Zoom parties have brought neighbours, young and old, together and included individuals who may have coexisted for many years but never got to know each other until now. Older people living in isolation are seeing their local community collect and deliver food parcels to their doors when, prior to the lockdown, they may never have seen anyone for days.

In fact, it would seem that a natural outcome of one of the most devastating events in our lifetime has been the creation of opportunities that could drive an increase in IG connectivity.

Older people and Covid-19

Unfortunately, the sweeping lockdown by the government of the over 70s restricted activities of some of the fittest and most active members of the community.

The underlying assumption is that all old people over 70 are more vulnerable than those under 70 by virtue of age. I would like to think that this was a strategic decision built on research. However, there is no research justifying this strategy, as Professor Janet Lord from the Institute of Inflammation and Ageing stated recently in ‘Relationships between the generations during lockdown’ on Radio 4 Woman’s Hour.

The government’s decision assumes that fit 70 year olds and over, without underlying comorbidity, are more vulnerable than unfit individuals under 70’s who are also without comorbidities.

Whilst there is growing evidence to suggest our immune system becomes increasingly compromised as we age, until studies stratified by age are conducted, assumptions and stereotyping are still a real danger. In a pandemic where there are limited resources, even greater caution is needed in the decision-making processes about beneficiaries of care.

Care home deaths have come under great scrutiny. The neglect of our old people, many of whose deaths are thought to have been preventable, is a cause for great concern.

Old, with comorbidities and BAME

It is becoming increasingly evident that if you are old and with comorbities you are at greatest risk of developing Covid-19. However, if you are old, with comorbidities and from a BAME background, this risk appears to increase markedly. How this compares to being old, from a BAME community and without coexisting comorbidities is unknown. None of the above changes the fact that many old people, irrespective of background and vulnerabilities are still living isolated and lonely lives.

We cannot allow innovations triggered by Covid-19 reconnected old people with local communities to disappear.

The pandemic has shown us the untapped potential to engage older people more effectively in our communities than we have done in the past.

OPH4YO is one of many IG projects showing the potential of IG schemes to bring about societal change. Whilst a pandemic is not what anyone would wish for, it has created widespread community engagement and increased neighbourliness. It has presented to us ways in which we can stimulate and grow more inclusive IG communities.

Let us continue to use and build on the innovations and opportunities Covid-19 has presented. We must ensure IG connectivity retains its momentum and reduces the isolation and loneliness that can come with getting old.

© 2020 Melrose Stewart
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