'Making the ladies happy': When bringing generations together is child's play

Sonja Olsen (in the red skirt) runs an intergenerational playgroup in Melbourne's east.
Sonja Olsen (in the red skirt) runs an intergenerational playgroup in Melbourne's east. Photo: Eddie Jim

On the way home in the car, two-year-old Eleanor O'Shea piped up from the back seat. "Mumma you talk to the lady, make the lady happy?".

Rachel O'Shea had taken Eleanor and her eight-month-old sister Charlotte to an intergenerational playgroup, a rare moment where society's oldest and youngest members are brought together in music and dance.   

Afterwards, participants shared a cuppa. And while Eleanor was too shy to talk, she watched her mum chat with an elderly woman.   

Young children and elderly residents come together to sing and dance.
Young children and elderly residents come together to sing and dance. Photo: Eddie Jim

"I was able to say yes, it did make the lady happy," says Ms O'Shea, smiling at the memory.

"It's lovely she's able to see how her presence can make an impact on someone's day."

This intergenerational playgroup happens once a month at Mercy Place Boronia, an aged care facility Melbourne's east. It began two years ago at the aged care home's request.

It's an example of a small but growing number of intergenerational groups that bring together senior citizens and young children, and proponents say there is evidence of benefits to all.

"One lady told me she couldn't dance, she was too old. But when she didn't she couldn't stop. She had tears in her eyes," says Hey Dee Ho Educational Service facilitator Sonja Olsen, who runs the sessions.

The service now organises seven groups in Melbourne and a total of 12 across the country.

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"The kids are so free, so uninhibited, it encourages the older people," says Ms Olsen.

Australia is yet to follow international examples that include a preschool inside a nursing home, such as the Intergenerational Learning Center in West Seattle, in the US.

But there are playgroups, childcare centres and kindergartens that have regular reciprocal visits from nearby aged care facilities.

Olsen says each playgroup session has a different theme and includes activities for fine motor skills (think finger puppets) and "brain gym": physical activities that use both hemispheres of the brain.

The music ranges from nursery rhymes to '50s Elvis – anything that encourages participants to shake a tambourine, get up on their feet or sing along.

And afterwards there's the chance to cuddle a baby, while toddlers impart their wisdom to a captive audience.

"The elderly love it so much," says Ms Olsen. "They tell me constantly how it brightens their day."

Many of the children who come along have families who live overseas, and don't see grandparents often.

"The kids can be a little bit apprehensive at first but music just makes everyone get along."

Professor Anneke Fitzgerald, from Griffith University, says there is evidence of the benefits of intergenerational programs.

She is currently doing a feasibility study into demand in the Australian context.

For older adults, programs reduce isolation and create a sense of purpose, including for those living with dementia. And for children the benefits include psychological and social development.

But most examples in Australia are on a trial or ad-hoc basis, says Professor Fitzgerald.

"We think it needs to be a policy matter, supported by government. Which is why we need to do an economic evaluation".

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