Participants at The Marion residential-care facility in Leichhardt

Sean Mooney reports on playgroups that are bringing generations together.

A nursing home is quite possibly the last place you'd expect to find prams, preschoolers and playdough, yet a new type of playgroup is appearing in some of these previously child-free environments. From aged-care facilities to community-based seniors programs, intergenerational playgroups are bringing together young children, parents/carers and senior citizens.

Playgroup NSW has teamed with UnitingCare Ageing to run these playgroups at Abrina Nursing Home in Ashfield and The Marion residential-care facility in Leichhardt (pictured). The latter group meets on Mondays and Thursdays, with up to 22 children, 10 parents or carers and a dozen residents attending. It is run by a leader from Playgroup NSW, and facilitated by the centre's therapeutic-recreation staff. While the children play, elderly residents can choose to just observe, or interact with the children and their parents/carers.

Diana Smith, Playgroup NSW program manager, says the Sydney Regional Intergenerational Playgroup Project supports interactions: "The sharing of stories and life experiences between the seniors and parents has been extremely valuable," Smith says. "And we recognise the benefits of giving families who don't have access to their grandparents the opportunity to make a connection with a grandparent-like role model."

Playgroup NSW plans to expand the program to Haberfield, the eastern suburbs and the Blue Mountains, and Smith says demand for intergenerational playgroups is growing. "We've found that the word is getting out there, and we're getting lots of phone calls from aged-care facilities and even neighbourhood centres working with senior-citizen groups," she says. "The aged-care workers see the benefits and they want to give the senior citizens more of these connections. Visits from families with young children are the perfect way to do that."

UnitingCare Ageing senior project officer Garry O'Toole says the idea to introduce intergenerational playgroups came from the observation that friends and family of many people in aged-care facilities often did not live close by, and only had contact on special occasions. Some residents had no family contact at all. "Our intergenerational playgroups provide our residents with the opportunity to interact with children on a regular basis," O'Toole says. "This brings great joy to many residents, and the young children and their parents are also rewarded with an experience that helps them understand ageing by having direct contact with older people."

Smith believes intergenerational playgroups contribute to an improvement in senior citizens' morale, activity level, communication and participation in activities. O'Toole says UnitingCare staff have reported that residents with dementia have shown positive behavioural changes after interacting with children.

These claims appear to be supported by recent research projects into intergenerational playgroups, the largest of which is being conducted by Dr Margaret Skropeta and Dr Alf Colvin from the University of Western Sydney's (UWS) School of Science and Health. Together with UnitingCare Ageing and Playgroup NSW, they received a UWS grant to explore the development and implementation of the Sydney Regional Intergenerational Playgroup Project and its impact on issues such as loneliness and boredom. The research aims to create a model of a best-practice intergenerational playgroup that can be implemented across the country.

Research for the longitudinal study began in June 2011 at The Marion, and has primarily focused on the interaction between the people involved in the playgroups. "We have children aged one week to four years, their mothers, fathers, grandparents, grandfathers and also nannies, and then there are the residents and staff," says Skropeta. "We've interviewed the residents about their general health and how they feel every day in terms of whether they're depressed or not. We'll collect the second lot of data from the residents in the next few months, and we'll do a comparison to see whether their health status has actually changed over that period of time."

The research team has also asked parents and carers why they've chosen to join this kind of playgroup. "We're trying to understand what kinds of connections the parents are making with the residents, as well as other parents and participants in the playgroup," says Skropeta. "A lot of our young parents are isolated because they live in the city while their parents live in another city, State or country, and that's why they come to the playgroup. One of the most interesting things we've found is that when they visit relatives now, their children aren't afraid of older people."

An evaluation of an intergenerational playgroup in a Victorian residential aged-care facility was conducted in 2010 by a National Ageing Research Institute (NARI) research team. NARI research clinician Sue Williams says it was an "amazing experience". "Residents could be actively involved or just be looking out the windows and hearing children, which was a delightful and different thing for them living in a community where they don't have children around," she says. "The ones involved loved the concept of feeling young again and having a job to do. We can talk about changing attitudes and reducing social isolation, but it is all about the here and now of participating in something that is enjoyable."

Williams says researchers learned a lot about intergenerational interaction in the community. "The residents may be grandparents and they may see one or two of their grandchildren at a time, but to see a group of children together is a very different experience," she says. "So although people aren't necessarily isolated from their families, it is the isolation from seeing children interact with their peers that the playgroup counters." The NARI research culminated in the creation of a guide to starting a playgroup in an aged-care facility.

Perhaps the most poignant evidence of the effectiveness of intergenerational playgroups can be found in the responses of participants in the UWS research. Margaret Skropeta says the older people in the study talked about how the playgroup brought more meaning to their lives. "It's an emotional time for many of them," she says. "A lot of the older people make the link to when they had children and what their family was like. Reliving that experience is wonderful for them." A mother at The Marion playgroup told researchers she appreciated the opportunity for her two young children to be with people who really wanted to interact with them. "That connection, that feeling of community, is what we focus on," says Skropeta.

This article was first published in the May 2012 edition of Sydney's Child.

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