At a time of year when loneliness and social isolation can be a real problem for the elderly, a primary school in Essex is piloting a new project where older people are brought into the classroom to work with four and five-year-old children.

Local pensioners who are affected by isolation, depression and early dementia are, along with their carers, visiting Downshall Primary School in Ilford up to three times a week. The scheme is advantageous to both parties involved; the visitors benefit from interacting both with each other as well as the children, while 87 per cent of pupils at the school speak English as a second language, so the chance to talk to older members of the local community is invaluable.

The project – Bringing Together, Learning Together, Growing Together – uses the ideas behind cognitive stimulation therapy. The scheme is inspired by research from Japan, where there has been a lot of work on stimulating social integration between generations due to one in four of the population is aged over 65. It was devised by consultant psychiatrist Dr David Hinchcliffe, and all those taking part are patients who have been referred. “Social interventions are a valuable part of someone’s treatment, along with biological and psychological interventions,” he told The Guardian. “Post-recovery they are helpful in reducing social isolation, loneliness and a risk of relapse.”

The visitors have their own room at the school where they can mix with each other and where the children can come to play. They also do 20-minute sessions with the school’s reception classes, during which they read, sing songs and take part in other activities that fit into the national curriculum.

The success of the project will be assessed at the end of the school year, but the initial responses are good. “We had one lady who said she could not remember being so happy,” said Hinchcliffe. “She wakes up in the morning and can’t wait to go to school. That’s rewarding enough.”

The children seem to be enjoying it, too. One boy who had not spoken since starting school in September spoke for the first time during one of the sessions. “For these children to have the experience of building an emotional bond with these elderly members of our community, as well as the opportunity to speak with them and develop their language skills is crucial,” said Maria Zgouralis, the school’s Head of Early Years.

Derek, an 86-year-old former printer and amateur footballer, visits the school every week with his wife and carer, Edith. “It’s very hard at times, for the people themselves and the carers,” she told The Guardian. “I think this is a brilliant idea. Derek likes coming. He likes mixing with the people here and with the children. And it gets us out of the house.”

Another school in Worcestershire is trialling a similar scheme where pupils get elderly pen pals. Franche Primary School in Kidderminster has connected 120 of its year four pupils with residents in two local care homes as part of their creative writing curriculum.

The link-up was organised by Michael Butler, activities co-ordinator for the High Habberley House and Hollyfields care homes.

“I have always sought to include intergenerational activities in our social schedules because this has such a special impact on improving people’s well-being,” he told the Schools Week website. “The pen-pal scheme takes this to a new level, supporting young and old to form deeper, lasting connections. The response to the first letters we got through from the children was amazing. One lady even cried with excitement.”

The pupils wrote their first letters over the summer, and got their responses last term, before meeting their pen pals in person just before Christmas.

Read our guide on tackling loneliness this christmas.

This article was written by Fiona Gilbert: Editor
Wise Old Elephant

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