Neil Gandecha, Estate Manager at Foxholes Care Home, discusses the power of intergenerational relationships in care facilities across the country and how meaningful connections between different age groups can make a huge difference to people’s daily lives.

It’s no secret that the health and social care sector has been disrupted immeasurably throughout an unprecedented 18 months. Such a testing and unparalleled period has certainly heightened our sense of grief and, at times, seen us lose touch with reality. From this, we have learned just how important it is that we remain as connected with society as humanly as possible.

Social distancing, social shielding, self-isolation and the introduction of PPE formed all-new defining characteristics to our society. It came at a gargantuan cost too, where for the sake of protecting others, we had to shield our real selves for a substantial period of time. In fact, such devotion to the protection of others had the potential to alter relationships. If we weren’t careful, our once ‘temporary’ reality was at risk of defining a new norm. For a person living with dementia, such a reality can be downright frightening. That’s why the power of igniting intergenerational friendships for those residing in care homes has become an invaluable tool in protecting integral and fundamental aspects of our society.

Overcoming age segregation

Age segregation has become the norm in the UK today. We divide up our communities and activities by age. Young people are typically in schools and older people often reside in care homes, whilst young and middle-aged adults tend to cluster at offices and work sites. As a result, there is little interaction between generations.

Still, relationships between the elderly and the younger generations have the power to enable care home residents to feel connected in several ways. It empowers them to feel linked, not only to each other but to something bigger: to the past and future.

According to Erik Erikson, one of the first psychologists to describe social development across a lifetime, connections between youth and the elderly can give a sense of fulfilment. Intergenerational relationships, therefore, have the power to invigorate and energise the older generation, and help to reduce the risk of depression and loneliness.

Many activities help to build and strengthen intergenerational relationships – storytelling, talking about backgrounds and cultures, and sharing social customs – which helps to keep cherished memories alive.

The pen pal project

Indeed, the past 18 months or so have prohibited families from being near their loved ones. Still, it’s essential for seniors to connect with the younger generation. At Foxholes Care Home, many residents were recently presented with the opportunity to experience the power of intergenerational relationships with a selection of students from Hitchin Girls’ School. In a bid to strengthen community connection and form long-lasting intergenerational friendships, we recently relaunched our pen pal project.

After the scheme (which initially launched in February last year) had to be paused due to the coronavirus pandemic, we’re now in a position to resume our mission in helping to foster friendships the old fashioned way by sharing letters between residents and students.

The project will enable 22 residents and students to pair up and exchange handwritten letters seasonally throughout the year. The recent batch of letters contained information documenting key elements of their lives, such as name, age and family information (marital status, number of children/grandchildren), which served as a mini bio to aid the introductory process.

It is encouraging to see back-and-forth reciprocity between both generations. Not only are intergenerational relationships good for residents but they also help to fill a void for children who do not have grandparents.

It’s no secret that grandparents are often referred to as the monarchy of their family because they have years of experience and can share their knowledge, perspectives and key civic values with those younger than them.

Children, in turn, can also act as a source of joy for their elders, while aiding with many simple tasks. Studies have shown that intergenerational bonding activities can benefit the lives of those living with dementia and improve memory test performances, while simultaneously enhancing their mental health.

Moreover, care home residents who experience close intergenerational interaction tend to be happier with their present life and more hopeful for the future, reducing feelings of sadness and increasing their self-worth and self-esteem.

If these connections are so profoundly important for all involved, why aren’t there more programmes seeking to actively engage the elderly with younger people?

Naturally, the answer lies in a wide array of societal changes – some progressive, others less so – that have taken place over the past century. In that period, we have gone from one of the most age-integrated nations on earth to its mirror opposite. Historically, young and old connected naturally. Close daily contact between the young and old was a matter of survival, such as being with, watching over and assisting in the care of young children. The physical limitations that can come with getting older cement the relationship between old and young. The physiological changes that accompany old age, which contemporary society looks upon with great disdain, can also provide useful preconditions for valuable intergenerational connections.

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The joys of intergenerational connections

So, how can we turn things around? How can we uncover new ways to do old things and rediscover the joys of intergenerational connections?

Indeed, we need to be creative with our approach to maintain the art and heart of conversation. Sharing the events of lived experience with the loved ones we live with and those who matter to us, as well as being able to create new meaningful memories, should be facilitated and encouraged. Change can bring innovation and widely accessible technology can be seamlessly integrated into care environments nowadays.

Video conference applications such as WhatsApp, Zoom and Skype can be very helpful in facilitating intergenerational relationships. Particularly for those people living with dementia, the use of modern technology can bring a sense of familiarity, recognition and calmness.

With that said, the positive impact of intergenerational relationships was something we were desperate to implement and utilise to our advantage at Foxholes. The pen pal scheme is an outstanding initiative and enables two different generations to connect, share and enjoy each other’s stories. Following 18 months of social distancing and isolating, it was touching to reignite that pre-existing bond.

Theresa Lowe, a teacher at Hitchin Girls’ School, also hailed the pen pal project as a success,
saying, ‘It has been a pleasure to be involved with Foxholes’ pen pal scheme. Students
across all age groups have really enjoyed reading the letters from residents and writing
back. We look forward to continuing the project in the future.’

It becomes clear then, that if we, as a sector, are serious about improving the lives and overall wellbeing of our residents, we must rewrite the narrative and continue to utilise the power of intergenerational relationships in care facilities across the country. If we start by acknowledging the simplest of meaningful connections, then it can make a tremendous difference to someone’s daily experiences.

Neil Gandecha is the Estate Manager at Foxholes Care Home, a residential care home set in 18 acres of serene and peaceful Hertfordshire countryside, surrounded by grazing horses and an abundance of wildlife. Purpose built near the market town of Hitchin in 2012, Foxholes provides a luxurious standard of accommodation and facilities.