Loneliness is a problem which spans the generations, its impact on us is as bad for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day according to recent research. But the elderly are particularly affected.
Figures from Age UK show that 200,000 older people have not had a conversation with friends or family for a month, and for 3.9 million older people the TV is their main company.
A shocking 60 percent of people in care homes get no visitors. This was a big driver for Louise Goulden, who says care home residents are just like anyone else.
“They were in their local community, they were working, they were raising families, and now because they’ve reached a certain physical or mental state they’re shut off in this kind of secretive world.”
It’s not just about tackling older people’s loneliness, says Goulden, young people are “really missing out on not having older people in their lives: the wisdom, the life experience, just a fresh perspective”.
Louise Goulden decided to do something about it. Babies crawl around on mats, playing with colourful plastic toys. Toddlers and parents sit on the floor chatting. A bag of instruments – triangles, shakers and drums – is waiting to be fought over.
It looks like any other parent baby class, but this one has a difference. Sitting around the cluster of children are 20 residents of the Ross Wyld Care home in Walthamstow, ranging in age from 93 to 56. This is their lounge.
Songs & Smiles, a singalong baby and toddler session set in a care home, is the brainchild of Louise Goulden, who came up with the idea while on maternity leave after having her son Heath.
Her sister, who volunteered with elderly people, suggested she take Heath to a care home to brighten up residents’ days.
“It just planted a seed in my head – well, if one child could do that what could a group of children on a regular basis do?” says Goulden.
It inspired her to quit her marketing job and set up The Together Project, a community interest company which aims to tackle loneliness and unite community.
Goulden was aware of plenty of research that intergenerational schemes have benefits, from building self-esteem and improving health and wellbeing, to making people feel more connected to their community.
For many of the parents, it may be the first time they’ve been in a care home. “They feel like very closed off places,” says Goulden. “So, I think for the first-time people come they think it’s quite an unfamiliar environment and [they wonder] ‘how do I speak to someone who’s got dementia, should I try to speak to them or is that going to be awkward for them and for me?”
The point of the singing is to break the ice. In the session I took my kids to, we sang the classics from ‘Wheels on the Bus’ to ‘You Are My Sunshine’, via a resident’s request for an a capella version of ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’.
Many of the residents sang and shook their instruments, with some even dancing in their chairs. Others just looked on, while a handful slept through the noise.
After 20 minutes or so, there was time for mingling, coffee, squash and biscuits. Some of the residents chatted to the children, asking how they were, how their parents were coping and played peekaboo with the babies.
Goulden says that there are benefits even for the least communicative residents. There is one woman with severe dementia, she says, whose husband caught the end of a session. “He just shouted at me rather gruffly ‘excuse me, whose idea was all this’ and I said ‘mine’ and he said ‘thank you, she really enjoys it, it’s really made a difference to her”.
The youngest children at a Songs & Smiles session were eight-week-old twins, who Goulden says were extremely popular with the residents. They also have preschoolers join, who wander around chatting to everybody. “And that’s lovely because kids don’t have that sense of social awkwardness that we do,” says Goulden, “so it’s a good ice breaker.”
In our session, the children range from around four months to three years old. Louisa, there with her two-and-a-half-year-old Gracie, says thinking about her nan was the inspiration for coming.
“My nan went into a care home and she always felt that she was with older people and she wasn’t old, and I just thought it was a really nice way of making people feel young again by being with different generations.”
Goulden also has plans bubbling away to go beyond the singing sessions, and to match older children with isolated elderly people on creative writing and events projects.
For now she is crowdfunding to raise funds to take Songs & Smiles out to 10 to 15 more care homes.
Louise Goulden and the manager of the Wyld Care home in Walthamstow are to be commended for taking a major step in having a baby and toddler session in a care home to alleviate the loneliness suffered by residents in care homes.
There will be some who will focus on the risks of such a venture, and others who will have concerns about resident’s choice. However, given that these have been addressed and residents and regulators have been consulted, then it is a great idea to open up care homes to the wider community, to the benefit of residents.
Albert Cook Albert Cook BA, MA & Fellow Charted Quality Institute Managing Director Bettal Quality Consultancy