Primary school invites in elderly people to work with young pupils

CREDIT: This story was first seen in the Guardian

Downshall primary school in Essex hosts day centre where older people, some with early dementia, can interact with children, the Guardian reports.

A primary school in Essex is piloting a new project that brings elderly people suffering from isolation, depression and early dementia into the classroom to work with four- and five-year-old children, with the aim of mutually benefiting all.

Previous projects have involved children visiting care homes, but Downshall primary school in Ilford is thought to be the first to host a day centre for older people, who read books, sing songs and do puzzles with children.

Using the ideas behind cognitive stimulation therapy, the visitors benefit from social interaction with each other as well as from engaging in activities with the children, while the pupils – 87% of whom speak English as a second language – gain from increased interaction with adults.

The Downshall project, called Bringing Together, Learning Together, Growing Together, is inspired by research from Japan, where there has long been a focus on developing models of social integration between generations in response to the ageing population.

The elderly visitors come to school three days a week with their carers and support workers, and the aim is to accommodate nine each day. They have their own room where they can socialise with each other and where children can come to play.

Across three classrooms, they also spend 20-minute sessions with the school’s four- and five-year-olds, doing activities that fit within the national curriculum.

On the day the Guardian visited, the children and their guests were singing in the school hall. Derek, 86, who used to be a printer and a top amateur footballer, sang along to the Wheels on the Bus while performing all the actions. He was diagnosed with dementia four years ago.

Derek was at Downshall with his wife and carer, Edith, who later found herself surrounded by children demanding her help as they glued paper chains and cut out glittery Christmas decorations to hang on the tree. Derek sat quietly beside her. “We’ve been married 60 years this year,” she said.

“It’s very hard at times, for the people themselves and the carers. I think this is a brilliant idea. Derek likes coming. He likes mixing with the people here and with the children. And it gets us out of the house.”

Pam, 71, used to be a primary school teacher and looked happy to be back in the classroom in the school where her father was a pupil. “It can be a little bit boring sitting in the house on your own. It’s nice to come out and meet people and children. I like storytelling,” she said. “Paper chains? I can take it or leave it.”

Accompanying Pam was Lisa Oliver, who works with the elderly as part of Redbridge adult health social services, which is supporting the project. “For us to see Pam like this, it’s fantastic,” she said. “To see her walking around the school and interacting with the children, it’s given her a bit of authority.”

The project was the brainchild of the consultant psychiatrist Dr David Hinchcliffe. All the elderly people taking part in the project are referred patients. They may be recovering from depression or at risk of becoming socially isolated.

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“Social interventions are a valuable part of someone’s treatment, along with biological and psychological interventions. Post-recovery they are helpful in reducing social isolation, loneliness and a risk of relapse,” he said.

The potential benefits for children include positive changes in perceptions and attitudes about older people, increased self-confidence, better behaviour in school, increased self-management skills and higher standardised reading test scores.

Both generations had baseline assessments at the start of the pilot and will be reassessed at the end of the school year to see what impact the project has had. The early signs are good. “It’s fantastic,” said Hinchcliffe. “Absolutely amazing. Just the looks on everybody’s faces.

“We had one lady who said she could not remember being so happy. She wakes up in the morning and can’t wait to go to school. That’s rewarding enough.”

The children taking part in the project at Downshall are also flourishing. The headteacher, Ian Bennett, said: “We thought it would be a great idea to trial this. We’ve had some amazing moments. One chap was reading a story to the children, who were absolutely enthralled by his deep Irish accent.”

One little boy, who had not spoken since joining the school at the start of term, spoke for the first time while taking part in the project. “For these children to have the experience of building an emotional bond with these elderly members of our community, as well as the opportunity to speak with them and develop their language skills is crucial,” said Maria Zgouralis, head of early years.

Stephen Burke, a director of United for All Ages, which promotes the development of shared sites to bring generations together, said he hoped other schools would follow suit.

“It’s a win win for the children and the older people, sharing activities, and experiences, and thereby improving health, learning and mutual understanding for all involved. The benefits go further too: for the school, care and health services, local charities and the wider community,” he said.

Bennett, too, is unreservedly enthusiastic. “It enriches and adds,” he said. “It makes us feel at the heart of the community. I’ve got a feeling it’s going to make a difference.”

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