“People are rarely happy on their own. Which is why multi-generation houses are the model for the future: learning from one another, feeling needed, sharing joy. A real recipe for happiness!”
So said Dr Eckart von Hirschhausen, author and patron of a multi-generation house in Berlin’s Zehlendorf district. I quoted Dr Eckart in one of my earliest blogs back in 2014, highlighting Germany’s pioneering intergenerational day care centres and houses that bring together everyone, from babies and toddlers to older people, with positive results.
Since then I’ve become ever more convinced of the power of mixing up generations – whether with projects such as Alive charity’s Paint Pals project in Bristol, where schoolchildren visit and befriend those with dementia in care homes, to my local Nightingale House in Clapham, which last year became the UK’s first care home to open a nursery for pre-school children in its grounds. One 89-year-old Nightingale resident said that having the little ones with them was “like being reborn”.
So I couldn’t wait to catch up with the first of C4’s series, Old People’s Home for 4-Year-Olds. In the longest experiment of its kind, ten young children joined ten of the 400 residents of Lark Hill retirement village in Nottingham. Its sound track and occasional lingering camera shots of the village itself gave it the feel of a sort of anthropoligical-cum-social-care Great British Bake Off, but it was none the worse for that: I’m all for accessible documentaries with a heart.
Over three months, experts in both young children’s educational development and old age monitored the mood, memory and mobility of the older participants and the social interaction and language development of the youngsters to see whether being together for a sustained period could benefit one or both groups. The proof of the pudding, as biogerontologist Dr James Brown of Aston university said, will be in the results, so for now we viewers can only wait.
That being said, the opening programme revealed, in the form of 97-year-old second world war veteran Victor, the bleak isolation and deep sense of loss with which older people are so often confronted, even when they are far from alone; it displayed in all its wide-eyed wonder, the unpredictability, honesty and vulnerability of four-year-olds. And it hinted at the magic that can happen when the two age groups combine their formidable forces.
Clever little Phoenix, 4, struggles to adjust when he first enters Lark Hill. Lavinia, a softly spoken retired librarian of 81 with Parkinson’s disease, notices this. She picks up on his love of anything to do with transport and gives him a picture of a blue, old-fashioned lorry to take home. He can hardly believe his luck. “I hope I’ve done something to make him more outgoing,” Lavinia reflects. “If he greets me when I come in tomorrow then I shall know”.
By day seven, Lavinia is Phoenix’s favourite. She’s naughty too, for all her quiet exterior. As a schoolgirl she broke windows playing rounders and persuaded a boy to write their names on the wall – they both got caught. Lavinia. The librarian rebel. Who’d have thought it?
That’s the thing. Old people are not an homogenous mass of nameless shapes; they are individuals with varied and unique pasts. Victor remembers hearing the hiss of the shrapnel at the water’s edge on Dunkirk beach. When he speaks of his late wife he’s no longer a curmudgeonly old so-and-so but the young romantic bereft of his love. At 102, Sylvia’s been a widow for 40 years. A lifetime of widowhood. Her first child was born during the blitz, her midwife wore a helmet. Now the strength of her grip is 6.5kg, which classifies her as frail – a fall or infection would hospitalise her and potentially lead to long-term care. But she’s still Sylvia.
Dr Brown adds a note of caution. “If we can get Sylvia eating and moving more and spending less time on her own, there’s a chance we can make her less frail – but for a 102-yer-old it really is a big ask”.
It’s worth trying. Malcolm Johnson, Professor of Gerontology at Bath university says, “What we are doing is trying to restore to people what they appear to have lost. Finding yourself from the past is truly pleasurable and life enhancing”. Watching the first programme we saw this beginning to happen.
The four-year-olds with their sense of adventure and fearless trust helped to mitigate the painful realities of later life. Three youngsters accompany Pauline, Kathleen and Victor on a half hour tram trip. It may not seem much (and other adults are on hand) but for some of the older ones this is the furthest they’ve ventured independently in years. Until now Victor has, on average, been sedentary for 12 hours a day, often alone and, to quote him, “in the doldrums”. On the tram trip he’s transformed into a different man – the man he was, perhaps?
“We’ve created a mode of old age which is to create risk free environment for old people but it is claustrophobic,” says Professor Johnson. “Modest risk, even immodest risk, is very good for older people. They realise that they can (do these things) and it makes their life richer and better”.
The other side of the coin is, to use a chilling, Orwellian phrase coined by Canadian journalist and author Dan Gardner, the “safest humans who have ever lived”. The Danish existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who had an electrifying way with words, expressed the phenomenon of over-zealous caution in even starker terms. “To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself”.
I’m looking forward to seeing how the experiment progresses, how much more we’ll discover about the 20 diverse characters and how much the older group regain those things they appear to have lost – whilst trying to forget one four-year-old’s definition of “very, very old” as 37.