Pensioner playdates: when playschools visit nursing homes

Everybody involved seems to benefit when kids from playschools visit nursing homes, writes Geraldine Walsh.

The giddy laughter of excited four-year-olds is probably the last thing you expect to hear when you tell them that they are visiting the nursing home today. 

But that is exactly what Eilish Balfe of Happy Days Montessori in Ratoath, Co Meath, hears every week.

Balfe, manager and montessori teacher, has partnered with the local Ratoath Manor Nursing Home, a part of the Silver Stream Healthcare Group, for the past two years. 

She brings her class of bubbling, loud and happy pre-schoolers to play, laugh and tell stories with the residents who ordinarily wouldn’t be inundated with 20 excitable kids at once.

The idea originally snowballed after a conversation with the receptionist of the nursing home, as Balfe’s own father is a resident. 

She has now been bringing the children of Happy Days to the nursing home, with Christmas and end of year shows being the highlight, every week.

“Silver Steam have been very supportive and welcoming,” Balfe says, “especially Mairead, the co-ordinator there. She has always guided us through the visits. 

"The dementia ward, where my Dad is, can be tricky at times. Mairead supported us through that. They love hearing the children sing so we normally sing songs when we visit the residents there.”

It may seem like an unusual combination, mixing an overly energetic group with that of a more sedate life but the research tells us different.

Psychologist and psychotherapist Sally O’Reilly recognises that the study of intergenerational relationships is becoming easier as our population ages with many more active people to interview and observe.

O’Reilly explored the research and found that regular contact with grandchildren might enhance the physical, emotional and cognitive well being of grandparents.

Any grandparent or elderly person who has contact with children will tell you that they move a lot more than their more sedentary peers who aren’t chasing, playing with or simply cuddling little people.

"The benefits to physical health are obvious here," she says. "We are built to move, it’s good for aging joints and hearts.”

The benefits far exceed the physical however, as O’Reilly continues, “Qualitative research tells us that the loneliness and loss of sense of purpose that older people inevitably experience are to some degree mitigated by having contact with children and younger people. 

"As we age we have less contact and many of us find that adjustment difficult, or even impossible. 

"In my own practice I see how similar aging is to the grieving process because there are so many losses. 

"Loss of health, relationships, work, independence, energy, and money.”

Balfe is not the only one who has taken this initiative and recognised these benefits for both old and young. 

There are a number of Montessori, primary schools and secondary schools collaborating with local nursing homes throughout Ireland with a steady increase in those becoming involved, in part thanks to the TOY (Together Old And Young) Project. 

Balfe became involved with the TOY Project after participating in an immersion course in bringing older people and young children together with other practitioners in early childhood education.

“In April I took part in a pilot course run by DIT and the TOY PROJECT,” Balfe explains. 

“This was called Intergeneration Learning. It was piloted across seven countries in Europe with 70 participants. 

"The course was such a learning experience for me. It will be released this autumn as an online course to early childhood educators and social care workers. 

"I would highly recommend it to anyone who is thinking of doing an initiative like the one we are doing with our local nursing home.”

The benefits for the older generation are somewhat predictable but how do relationships such as these benefit a younger generation?

“In 2014 Stanford University hosted a ‘Pass it On’ conference,” says O’Reilly, “and from that came a really interesting 56 page document illustrating the clear benefits to both children and old people of good quality contact with each other. 

"It referred to the positive impact the older generation can have on childrens’ cognitive social and emotional development. 

"When there is good quality contact, the benefits to children are life long with skills like empathy, active listening, critical thinking, respect and awareness of difference.

Children also enjoy and benefit from showing older people how new things work. It’s part of developing a sense of worth, of expertise. And of course the act of that teaching benefits both generations.

"My own mother got enormous satisfaction when she discovered she could play bridge online with people from all over the world!”

It should be recognised, as O’Reilly reminds us that, “An assumption we have made is that contact with young people is in and of itself a good thing. 

"But as with people of all ages, for a relationship to have benefits the people in it must feel respected and valued.”

And with that as Balfe says, “Children ask lots of questions that only they can get away with. Why are you bald? Why do you shake? 

"But the residents don’t mind and it’s breaking down barriers with friendships developing.”

For Balfe and her Happy Days children, watching the two generations mingle has been beautiful. 

“They were both reserved in the beginning,” she says, “but the children became so familiar that they would be climbing on top of the residents with lots of hugs and high fives with lots of happy faces.”


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