Young and Old: The Benefits of Intergenerational Connection
For most of human evolution, strong intergenerational relationships were the norm, however, recent years have seen a growing trend towards age segregation. Given the various opportunities associated with intergenerational connection, we were eager to speak to Jessica Langford, SA Montessori Managing Director and Co-Founder of Echoes Montessori, about the unique learning environment they’ve recently created in Adelaide’s north-east.
Tell us about the unique learning environment you’ve created at Echoes Montessori.
Echoes Montessori is part of the Encore village for independent retirement living. We are not only co-located on the same plot, but deeply embedded into the design and dynamics of the village. The phrase we use to describe this is that we have both “shared land, and shared lives”.
We designed our early learning environment in conjunction with the architects and the team from ECH (who provide aged care support services) to ensure that the entire village would be an intergenerational and holistic space. Each resident has their own self-contained apartment, just as we have our own functional classroom, but across the overall landscape there are many community areas where we meet.
We are the first of our kind in Australia because we are integrating early childhood and independent retirement living. There are some early childhood centres that are co-located with residential aged care facilities, but the retirees we connect with are living in self-sufficient apartments. Our desire to work with independent retirement living, rather than an aged care facility, was partly driven by an interest in investigating something new, rather than replicating an existing program. We also know that intergenerational programs in aged care facilities have restorative benefits, and we believe it also has preventative benefits for retirees. We believe that, by keeping their minds and bodies active through the intergenerational program, it will help to maintain their mental and physical health, as well as their psychological well-being. We are working with research partners to monitor the outcomes of our village, and this is one of the advantages that we expect to see. We also wanted to be a model to show others that there are a variety of ways of incorporating intergenerational engagement. People are familiar with the model of ‘child care and aged care’, but we want to encourage them to think outside the box about different contexts for these connections, so we are starting with our own approach.
Operating within an independent retirement living village also aligns closely with the core values of the Montessori philosophy. In a Montessori education setting, we view the child as a capable, contributing member of their community. We respond to the child’s implicit call of “teach me to do it myself” so they can develop independence. With the residents of Encore retirement apartments, we hold the view that they continue to be capable, contributing citizens that they deserve to maintain their independence for as long as possible. There are many harmonious parallels and overlaps between the Montessori perspective of respect for the child and a dignified, compassionate and empowering approach to ageing.
I’m sure a lot of our readers will be familiar with the ABC series ‘Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds’. How does your program compare to the social experiment they carried out?
That series provided such a beautiful insight into how heart-warming intergenerational engagement is! It showcased the joy of those relationships and shared moments. We are proud that our environment provides opportunities for all of those beautiful interactions and friendships but, what makes our setting distinct is that intergenerational engagement is not an occasional activity, it is deeply embedded into who we are and how we live in that shared space. In ‘Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds’, a group of children left their own care environment to visit elders in a separate aged care facility once a week for a set period of time. It was a beautiful program, but it was temporary. Our intergenerational village means that the engagement between elders and children is permanent and pervasive, in that it is always ongoing and integrated into many aspects of daily life. If we have an Encore apartment resident who wants to be with the children every day for the next ten years of their life, they have the opportunity to do that. It means that our relationships can become deeper and the benefits more sustained over time.
Your unique program provides opportunities for the children and adults to come together to share experiences, knowledge and skills that are mutually beneficial. What activities do the children and residents collaboratively engage in?
We feel it is important to create a range of opportunities that reflect the diversity of the participants. We are trying, as closely as possible, to reflect the natural richness and rhythms of real ‘village’ life. This means having different types of interactions, in various places, at many times, to include all the villagers on their own terms. This helps us to create authentic, integrated intergenerational living and to encourage inclusion. For instance, we meet in the Community Gardens to tend to the plants together, we invite our elders to visit the classroom to read stories or use the Montessori materials with the children, we build new furniture together in the Workshop, we meet in the shared Studio for art explorations, we cook together in our kitchen, and we gather in the Community Hall for afternoon tea. We also have a dedicated room - the ‘Engram’ room - where we host quiet, structured activities for children and residents who prefer a calm atmosphere. The fact that we take a multifaceted approach to embedding intergenerational engagement in our village means our program constantly evolves, based on the personalities and preferences of the children and adults. Their input and interests decide the direction of future experiences.
What are the benefits for the children of developing meaningful connections with the older adults?
There are very obvious and direct benefits in terms of the literal learning that children encounter when elders teach their skills and share their stories. They also learn subtler but equally important lessons. For instance, it helps children to grow up with a more positive view of the ageing process. This gives them a healthy outlook on their own futures, and a greater appreciation for others. Children who spend time with elders are also less prone to viewing others with ageism or through stereotypes. They have a better appreciation of the diversity of older people, and this manifests as respect and empathy towards them.
We also know that there are extraordinarily positive outcomes for children in terms of their social development, including their communication skills, as well as their emotional wellbeing. There is so much affection in the relationships, and so much joy in the interactions, which helps to promote psychological health and happiness for children and elders alike.
What are the reported benefits of intergenerational engagement for the residents?
The social and emotional benefits that children encounter are just as applicable to the elders. Those friendships inspire feelings of wellbeing and being valued, and help to reduce the risks of loneliness and isolation that older individuals can sometimes experience. Being engaged in an intergenerational program also encourages older people to continue expressing their strengths and feeling a sense of purpose, which improves their self-esteem and psychological resilience. Furthermore, by sharing their own skills and experiences, as well as encountering new experiences and ideas alongside the children, they are keeping their brains active. This lifelong learning helps to delay or reduce cognitive decline associated with the ageing process. Similarly, remaining physically active through interactions with the children can help the body stay fit and strong. We have a holistic view of the benefits as supporting the body, brain and heart for children and adults alike!
Jessica is the SA Montessori Managing Director and Co-Founder of Echoes Montessori
Originally published in Connected Caregiving Winter 2022