An intergenerational program involving preschoolers has improved the mental and physical health of older Australians, an industry summit has heard.

The National Ageing Research Institute held its annual summit on Friday, this year on intergenerational programs to support wellbeing in older people.

The summit heard from Dr Stephanie Ward, clinical and initiative lead at Australian Dementia Network Clinical Quality Registry at the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing, who was the expert geriatrician on ABC’s television program Old Person’s Home for 4 Year Olds.

The program’s first series aired in 2019 and was so successful that a second series was made.

Airing this year, it involved older people living alone at home and children aged four.

Dr Ward said the intervention was similar to the first series, however, had an increased focus on the impact on the children and their families.

“We found significant positive changes by the end of this experiment in measures of frailty, measures of mood and measures of quality of life.

“For the children, [we found] increased pro-social skills and recognition of an improved vocabulary,” Dr Ward told the summit on Friday.

“We found significant positive changes by the end of this experiment in measures of frailty, measures of mood and measures of quality of life.” – Dr Stephanie Ward

Impact on aged care residents

The program’s first series involved 11 aged care and retirement village residents and 10 preschoolers aged four.

Participants spent seven weeks together in a preschool classroom setting for researchers to examine the physical and mental impacts of residents engaging with children. 

At the beginning of the intervention, four residents screened positive for low mood or depression on the Geriatric Depression Scale, which is a score out of 15, and many spoke about being lonely, Dr Ward said.

“We found some pretty impressive changes,” Dr Ward said.

“With respect to the Geriatric Depression Scale, three out of the four participants who initially screened positive, no longer screened positive,” she said

“The change in that score out of 15 decreased by over two, which is quite significant,” Dr Ward said.

There were also “significant changes” to residents’ physical wellbeing, she said.

“Fifty per cent had an improvement in balance,” Dr Ward said.

“I remember meeting people the beginning and meeting people at the end, and in a couple of cases… it just didn’t even look the same person. It was really lovely to see the changes,” Dr Ward said.

The impact of the intervention on children was increased confidence and empathy and it also gave older people a sense of value, she said.

“Everyone who’s seen the program has their own take on this, but I thought it was around that sense of purpose. Because the older participants… in the group, for some, it was a reason to get up.

“Many of the participants were incredibly intelligent. They’re all incredibly resourceful people who had so much to give the children and were able to use their immense skillset in a new way. It was an opportunity for connection with the children, but also with the other adults as well,” Dr Ward said.

She said the program has increased positive attitudes among older people.

NARI’s Annual Summit 2021 took place on 5 November.

This story first appeared in Australian Ageing Agenda.

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