Saba Salman meets those involved with an intergenerational music project in Surrey, which brings together older adults with dementia or a disability and young people with learning disabilities or complex needs.
Society is in the grip of a loneliness epidemic. Headlines regularly warn about the scale of this modern scourge, from describing how social isolation increases our risk of death, to lamenting Britain’s status as one of the most age-segregated countries in the world.
What command less column inches are the small-scale solutions. There is little consideration of how hyper-local schemes – when funded, publicised and replicated nationally – could tackle loneliness and shift perceptions about the most isolated people in the country.
This is exactly what has been happening for the past nine months in a corner of southern England, where a care home, special school and music charity have been making small, but impressive waves.
Older people at The Beeches in Leatherhead, Surrey, a home run by housing and care charity Anchor, and pupils from Woodlands School meet weekly for singing sessions run by Intergenerational Music Making (IMM), a local community interest company.
Not only are the singers at opposing ends of the age spectrum (the youngest is five, the oldest is 90), they are from two of society’s most excluded groups: the adults have dementia or a disability or depression; the pupils have severe learning difficulties, complex needs or autism.
Uniting two such disparate groups for an hour a week at the care home has had astonishing results.
Research involving the 20 children who took part showed that, before the project started, none of them knew anyone with dementia or anyone over 70. Of the 20 older people, 18 said that they had little contact with children before the sessions. Afterwards, alongside the new relationships that had been formed, 18 of the children were more confident and all showed improved language and communication skills. Every single adult showed greater confidence, and improvements in mood and physical wellbeing (results were gathered using the Nordoff Robbins music therapy scale).
Less tangibly, the work is also challenging perceptions of the two groups. The choir performed at the Royal Albert Hall last year at an event for arts professionals and IMM is working on plans for “intergenerational hubs” on local high streets – singing groups which will be based at community centres.
“I Wasn’t Seeing Someone with Dementia”
Intergenerational projects are nothing new. Schools often visit care homes and intergenerational living is well established in countries such as Japan (these are intentional housing schemes encouraging young and old to mix). The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration has been exploring intergenerational housing.
But uniting people with dementia and children who have special needs is unique.
Before the singing and percussion sessions, Michael, 82, who has dementia and severe depression, and Rory, seven, who has special needs, were unaware of each other’s existence. Yet, for five days a week, they were just 500 feet apart (a two-minute walk separates the care home and school). Michael spent his time alone in his room. Rory was shy. But the workshops triggered a connection. Michael began coming out of his room an hour before the start of the session, anticipating Rory’s arrival. Rory was less nervous and began interacting with Michael and the other adults.
The pair found common ground through the music, which ranges from nursery rhymes to wartime tunes and Elvis songs. The music therapists tailor the sessions to the group and try to build connections. Michael might prefer 1960s songs, but maybe Rory is studying something at school that can be reflected through the music.
Some of the older people have adopted an unfamiliar yet positive new role, says Charlotte Miller, IMM founder: “They take on responsibility like they were the carers, instead of being cared for. They help the children play the tambourine or drums, or [if a child’s neurological condition causes drooling] wipe their mouths.”
Miller founded IMM after experiencing how music brought her closer to her late grandmother, who had dementia. “When we started to sing together, she’d become less agitated,” she said. “For that moment, I wasn’t seeing someone with dementia, I was just being with my grandmother.”
“Just People Together”
This sort of project could transform the lives of some of the 850,000 people in the UK living with dementia.
Older people’s support is precarious, with some estimates suggesting a £4.4 billion gap in adult social care funding. Recent figures from the Alzheimer’s Society reflect how cuts to social care support have driven a huge rise in emergency dementia admissions (a 35% rise in five years).
It could also have an equally beneficial effect on the 1.2 million children in the UK with special educational needs. Their support is in an equally parlous state, with local councils projecting a £1.6 billion shortfall in special needs funding by 2020-2021.
Initiatives like the one in Surrey are inexpensive and sustainable. Eight to 10 weeks’ worth of sessions with IMM are around £500 (costs have been shared by the school, care home and local council). The scheme requires only initial investment; in March, therapists will train the Beeches staff to run the sessions themselves. What is needed now is a detailed examination of its impact, so the case for using and funding it can be proved. IMM and Anchor have plans for research on the effect on participants’ sleep patterns and appetite.
Projects like this are too often seen as a ‘feelgood bonus’ instead of as an integral part of dementia care plans and special needs pupils’ Education, Health and Care plans. The short-term investment has the potential to reap long-term rewards.
Community-based solutions help keep older people out of hospital and lessen the risk of socially isolated children with special needs growing up to be equally excluded adults (one in three young adults with learning disabilities spend less than an hour a day outside their homes, according to research by the charity Mencap).
The work fits with Government and NHS commitments to prioritise dementia and autism and reduce loneliness. If the long-promised social care green paper is ever published, it needs to include schemes like this (more widely, the forthcoming budget should acknowledge the ailing state of the social care system).
Intergenerational work with excluded groups is already having an impact on people familiar with the issues – imagine the possibilities if it was adopted more widely.
“It’s been beyond anything that I could have imagined,” said Michelle Daniels, care manager at The Beeches, “just to see the relationships that have been formed, and to be able to keep those going. Neither group see each others’ disabilities – they’re just people together.”