Intergenerational Care in the Early Years:
How to Get Started

Time to bridge that generational divide.
  • Intergenerational care is all about providing opportunities for senior adults and young children to come together in the same space.
  • We spoke with Stephen Burke, Director of United for All Ages, to understand the benefits for everyone involved, including increased communication and language skills, empathy, and confidence in the young children.
  • After that, we’ll run you through some tips and ideas on how to get started, drawn from Stephen’s experience, with some extra insight from our interview with Alistair Bryce-Clegg.

“To be honest, everything we’re about is changing attitudes between generations. And the best place to start is as young as possible.”

Stephen Burke has been fighting for a less age-divided society for the best part of 10 years. Together with his wife Denise, he runs the think tank United for All Ages, who campaign to bring people of all ages in the UK closer together.

Having worked across the early years and adult care sector throughout their lives, the pair realised in 2010 that bringing those worlds together could help solve many of the problems they were seeing in care at both ends of the scale.

But why exactly is intergenerational care having such a boom in the UK? Can it really benefit the children in your care or is it just another fad? And if so, how do you even get started? Well, that’s where Stephen was hoping to help us out.

You need to start by asking ‘why?’

“The key to getting started with any sort of program is that you need to be thinking about why you’re doing it, and what the benefits are for everyone involved,” explains Stephen.

For a long time now, we’ve had a pretty good understanding of how bringing together young children and older adults can help to turn around some of the most damaging problems with growing old in this country.

Studies have shown that adults engage more with each other and smile more as a result of visits from young children, while social interaction has been shown to increase loneliness, delay mental decline, lower blood pressure and even reduce the risk of disease in senior adults.

But it’s not just the adults. As we’ll explain shortly, there are huge benefits to a child’s development that come from having this sort of focused, one-on-one time with so many adults too, as well as being a great start in bridging the growing intergenerational gap.

Super-duper-numerary – Intergenerational care and ratios

One of the biggest benefits of intergenerational care is the sheer number of adults that the children have access to. We all know about the power of one-on-one time and opportunities for Sustained Shared Thinking, and a care home filled with willing talkers with patient ears can give the children a fantastic chance to:

  • Try out ideas
  • Ask questions
  • Practice their communication skills
  • Have one-on-one storytime
What are the benefits of intergenerational care?

When I spoke with Alistair Bryce-Clegg last year about his involvement on Channel 4’s Old People’s home for 4-year-olds, he explained to me just how important it is to understand why you’re getting started. Stephen agrees.

“Both sets of staff are hard-pressed and have a lot of work to do,” he points out, “so making sure you understand and communicate the benefits is so crucial to make sure it doesn’t just seem like another burden on their workload.”

That’s why it’s so important you go out and read, watch, and hear from as many different resources as you can to understand why intergenerational care is such a good idea. Here are a few ideas to get started.

What are the benefits for the adults?
  • Social interaction can help make massive improvements in mental health, helping to battle depression, loneliness, and dementia.
  • The energy and activity of young children can help encourage more physical movements, generally making the adults more mobile and improving their strength.
  • The shared experience can help residents get more comfortable with conversation and have something to talk about with each other.
  • Those confined to their home find their home has suddenly become a cross-generational place, opening up their experience once again.
  • Care homes may have people who are disabled or suffering from dementia, and young children are often the least prejudiced in society – helping the older people to see themselves as just another person.
  • Some older people who might not have been able to have children or grandchildren of their own get to experience that close relationship with a young child.
What are the benefits for the children?
  • The benefit of one-on-one time with any adult is huge, and offers plenty of opportunities to test out ideas and get into sustained shared thinking.
  • Children, in particular, tend to develop stronger communication and social skills, develop language and reading, and increase their confidence and self-esteem.
  • It can help to develop empathy, care, and kindness, as well as improving their understanding of disability.
  • Children tend to spend less time around their grandparents than in previous generations, and so it’s really important to meet and understand older people.
  • It’s a chance to develop and hear about the local history and community.
  • It can be a chance to take on the responsibility of ‘looking after’ an older person, as they teach them about what they know and ground their knowledge in real life interactions.
  • Parents anecdotally report children being gentler with family pets, showing more empathy towards school friends and talking more positively about ageing and old people.
  • Spending time with an older person can help to ground a child’s idea of time and place, as they experience someone with a longer history of the world.
What are the benefits for everyone else?
  • Society needs us to bring older and younger people together more, to combat the generational divide that only seems to be getting worse. This can be a vital first step.
  • It can increase staff workload, but it also makes their job more interesting and expands their experience.
  • It’s helpful for parents to expand their horizons too and connect to the older people in their local community.
  • Getting parents involved can help to stretch initiatives to primary and secondary school too.
How to get started with intergenerational care

Whatever your reasons for considering setting up a partnership with a care home, it’s important that you do it for the reasons that make sense to you and your team. Before you get going, make sure you’re aligned on exactly why you’re doing it – you don’t want your team to feel like it’s something that’s been imposed on them.

But once you know why you’re doing it, what next? Well…

1. It all starts with a chat…

“Probably the biggest stumbling block for people is just finding the right care home,” admits Stephen. Getting the right partner for your project is so central to making it a success – you need to find someone who agrees with the way you want to do things, and is energised about getting started.

But where to look? Well, lots of settings have found the perfect location through their parents or staff, who might have a relative in a local care home. What’s more, it’s a great way of engaging the entire nursery community around the idea and why you’re setting out to do it.

“Once you’ve found someone, sit down with the manager, and take the time to build a relationship, because both sides need to understand the benefit of what you’re doing,” continues Stephen.

2. Tick the policy and insurance boxes

There’s a few boxes you need to tick before you get started, and one is getting in contact with your insurance provider to make sure that they can support you off-site.

After that, consider getting in touch with your local council or an organisation like United for All Ages to check whether you need to adjust your policies to fit with the new scheme.

Old People’s Home for 4-year-olds

If you haven’t already seen it, Channel 4’s programme is the perfect place to get inspired before you start your own project.

The second series in particular focuses on the benefits to the children as well as the adults, and there certainly were significant benefits for both, with 80% of the adults showing improvements in physical health and all of the children showing a notable progress in development during the project, according to early years expert Alistair Bryce-Clegg.

But it’s not all statistics. Whether it’s the story of Hamish, who went from sceptic to roaring on the floor like a lion, or volunteer Zena, who summed up the experience by saying “The most important thing in life is to be loved, and children have such a pure and positive love. To find a child’s hand in yours is one of the most moving things that can happen to you.”

3. Assess the environment

Everyone’s favourite two-word activity. That’s right, it’s not water play, it’s risk assessments!

It needn’t get overwhelming though, just make sure that you:

  • Risk assess any unsafe parts of the environment
  • Check toilet facilities are suitable
  • Make sure you can maintain ratios.

But as ever, make sure any risk assessment you’re making includes the benefits too, and make your judgement based on how the risks and benefits weigh up.

4. Aim for regular visits (if you can)

Settings tend to get the best results when they set up a regular programme, and a lot of the experts do say that a consistent approach is important.

“It’s all about building relationships really,” Stephen explains, “and that’s not going to happen on a one-off visit.”

It can take time for the children and adults to get used to each other, and that’s why settings who co-locate full time – like Apples and Honey Nightingale – have had such success.

Of course, full-time intergenerational care isn’t for everyone, and there’s nothing wrong with trying a one-off visit to dip your toe in the water. But if you really believe in the initiative visiting the care home once a week or fortnight is when you’re likely to see things really start to make a difference.

5. Have a bit more structure to begin with

Some of the most joyous moments on the Channel 4 series happened from those impromptu and unplanned conversations or moments between residents and children. And it’ll be the same for you too.

But Alistair Bryce-Clegg recommends starting out with a bit more structure as the children and adults get to know one another. It gives the day structure and gives them something to talk about as they’re getting used to each other. Arts and crafts activities are always a good place to start.

Also, make sure that you plan things so that everyone can get as involved as they’re comfortable with. Some residents in particular might like to hang back to begin with and observe before they get fully involved, so make sure you’re not expecting everyone to be front and centre from day one.

“Residents are the children’s reading buddies, encourage mathematical skills in games sessions and share their life experiences. The therapies team measures the impact of our exercise classes on the residents, and the nursery team have watched the children’s communication and language skills and personal, social and emotional development outstrip all expectations.”

Judith Ish-Horowicz MBE, Apples and Honey Nightingale

6. Keep a record

Like anything in an early years setting, it’s important to be able to evaluate and improve the outcomes of your intergenerational care initiatives.

Make sure you have a complete benchmark of the children before you start the experiment, and understand which areas of development are most likely to be impacted so that you know where to look for success. For example, in Old People’s Home for 4-Year-Olds, Alistair Bryce-Clegg says he was looking in particular at:

  • Wellbeing
  • Language use and acquisition
  • Social interactions
  • Empathy
7. Ask parents to keep a weekly diary

Assessment like this doesn’t always tell the whole story, and that’s why it might be a good idea to ask parents to fill in a weekly diary about the discussions they’re having with their children as a result of the project.

It’s helpful to understand the questions the children have been asking as a result of their time with the adults at the care home, as well as any anecdotal changes they might have noticed.

8. Prepare for bereavement

When you’re running an intergenerational project for a longer period of time, you have to be realistic that losing someone could be a part of the experience. And that doesn’t have to be a negative thing if you’re prepared.

“A lot of practitioners tell me that it’s really important that children develop an understanding of the cycle of life,” says Stephen. “A lot of nurseries have ducklings and other pets in their setting, and while staff need to be really prepared for how they’ll approach it, this is another way of looking at it.”

Just make sure that you take some time in your planning to prepare for the chance someone who the children connect with might not always be around. For example, there are plenty of wonderful child-centric books that you can use to help support children through the situation.

9. Connect with someone who has been through it.

Many of those settings that have succeeded with running an intergenerational care initiative feel incredibly passionate about what they’ve done and would be more than happy to have you reach out to them.

“What’s been amazing in the last three or four years is that the whole thing has completely taken off in the UK,” says Stephen. “Thousands of nurseries linking with thousands of care homes.”

Well, that’s a pretty good place to start. There’s something about having a chat with someone who has been through it to make sure you’ve dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s. If you’re struggling to find someone locally, get in touch with an organisation like United for All Ages who might be able to support you in finding a setting near you.

Further reading

A few great resources if you want to learn more about intergenerational care:

The Early Years Pedagogy Guide

Interested in more helpful advice? Download your free copy of our full early years pedagogy guide now.

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