Age – friendly? Children learning wise stories while teaching elderly the use of technology

UK is becoming an increasingly ageing population and both the elderly and children are more and more in need of social support, having to face emotional difficulties and a sense of isolation and/or marginalisation.  

• 23.2 million people aged 50 years and over represent a third of the total UK population

• 11.4 million people are aged 65 or over

• 1.5 million people are aged 85 or over (The Beth Johnson Foundation -October 2016)

• According to new YouGov research for the charity Age UK, nearly half of adults (7.7million) aged 55+ reported having experienced depression and around the same number (7.3 million) anxiety – revealing a high number of elderly facing mental health problems in the UK (October 2017).

• “Depression and anxiety affect nearly eight million people over 55, but can often go unnoticed and untreated” Alistair Burns, National Clinical Director for Dementia, NHS England.

• More than 2.6 million people are known to have had an open referral to the mental health services at some point during 2017; 560,000 of these were under 18 years of age (“Mental health statistics annual report includes information on children for first time – NHS Digital2, November 2017).

• Around one in five children and young people reported experiencing emotional and behavioural difficulties (Survey of over 30000 young people age 11-14 years old –Head Start data January 2018).

• A report by the Education Policy Institute in April 2016 found that on average, Children and Adolescents Mental Health Services (CAMHSs) are deflecting almost 25% referrals of young people requesting support.

The social condition of elderly people varies according to where they live. In small villages across the world elderly people retain their role and younger generations respect them as they hold the “wisdom”. Elderly people in the past used to have an important role within families and more widely within society. They naturally grew into the role of being “the old and wise”, knowing that children and younger people would naturally approach and ask them questions and/or would express existential dilemmas about their own life. Being the old and wise was a role that has always allowed elderly people to feel respected, as the community would perceive them as being able to share valuable experiences and lessons to be taught. They had reached that old age, survived and succeeded and for those obvious and tangible reasons – they unanimously and naturally deserved respect. “The old and wise” is an archetype – and Jung would support the idea that we need this image to believe that at different life stages we have a role in our society, a role to grow up into, a stage to reach. Most of human beings need to feel recognised and valued in order to feel fulfilled. Human beings are mostly gregarious and social and there is a need to feel socially integrated and be part of a “bigger picture”, something more than being just an individual. A sense of belonging and feeling valued are part of a perceived social support which is important for nurturing each other’s wellbeing, promoting resilience and preventing mental health problems. Grandparents – when they do exist in the life of a child – bring a variety of resources- emotional, practical, financial – they are part of the child’s social support. “The extent of grandparental childcare is considerable and has grown significantly with grandparents becoming the single biggest source of childcare after the parents themselves “(The Beth Johnson Foundation -October 2016). Children as we know have a different relationship with their grandparents and often we are surprised how grandparents relate to grandchildren as they could not relate to their own children. According to research and psychology studies, social support is directly linked to depression. Depression in adolescence is estimated to be around 3% and among the contributing factors are: problems in family, relationships, parental divorce, bereavement, history of bullying, of abuse and family history of depression (NICE guideline 2005). Increasing attention is given to interpersonal difficulties within parents and peers associated to depression (Chen, Johnston, Sheeber, Leve, 2009; Lewis & Si mons, 2009; Sheepfaced, Davis, Leve, Hops, Ileitides, 2007; Bernstein-Klemme, Zamarro, Klein man, Veldschoen & Gould, 2007). People who tend to isolate themselves are more likely to develop depression. Among other psychology therapies NICE guidelines (2005, 2009) recommend Interpersonal Therapy (IPT) for young people and adults suffering from depression. The main concept behind IPT is that by improving their social support, adults and young people are more likely to recover from depression and prevent depression – as they reach out, do not feel isolated but supported, valued and understood. “3.1 million over-65s have no contact with a friend, neighbour or family member in any one week and 1.8 million do not see anyone they know in a month” (July 2011- Nowadays in metropolitan cities all over the world, elderly people seem to have lost their role. In a multi-cultural society of second or third generations certain social roles have changed according to social and contextual expectations and emerging demanding requests for adjusting to a fast productive system. In this context elderly people are often marginalised. In the domain of productivity, as elderly people stop working, they are perceived as not making a quantified impact on society. However, we are all aware that the worldwide population is getting older and older – and older people are financially more secure than younger people. Considering the above, it is inevitable to reflect on how we are going to make a link between children and elderly people now, as today’s children are tomorrow’s adults: the decision-makers. How can we build a bridge between children and elderly people adopting a win-win approach in which both generations potentially become a reciprocal part of each other’s social support? Guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), says that there is good evidence that intergenerational activities improve general health and recommends all local authorities support and provide such schemes: •Intergenerational activities involving; for example, older people helping with reading in schools or young people providing older people with support to use new technologies (“Older people: independence and mental wellbeing” UK NICE guideline [NG32] Published date: December 2015). It is possible to argue that as elderly people can be quite isolated and are more likely to develop symptoms of depression, children also face difficulties in their childhood and moreover, when they become adolescents, they are also likely to develop depression if they have a lack of social support. Often the most vulnerable children and young people have difficulties within their family system. Schools might represent the first public context where children display emotional difficulties and where they start spending more time with peers and adults who are not part of their family but may be part of their social support. School is compulsory and is therefore the first place where children must attend, interact, learn and feel inspired. Acknowledging the lack of capacity from mental health services to address the needs of more and more adults and children requesting psychological support is the first step and it becomes crucial to think about “preventive interventions” and use of resources which focus on co-production and embarking on a social innovation journey among children, the elderly and the stakeholders. From a Pedagogic perspective, elderly people represent a valuable resource as they are potentially in a position to teach their life-lessons. They may feel rewarded if they teach a meaningful life experience, an episode they remember, an important life lesson, a learning point in their life to a child. Children are in a delicate stage of personal development where learning is a priority, also in terms of social skills and moral values. In the life-circle, the two extremes are joined. Is it possible to improve their reciprocal social support by planning something with them that is valuable for both of them? This idea comes from the experience of having worked with both children and elderly people and learnt that elderly at one point in their life are inclined to express a natural and authoritative nature by altruistically sharing their experiences and wise words. They is an example of resilience as “they have been there” and they survived, but they do not need to affirm themselves as they reached that inner personal developmental status and often look at the younger with tenderness. Children like stories and technology and elderly like to talk about their past stories as their long-term memory is the last part of the memory to deteriorate Recalling past experiences is not just a cognitive exercise but it is also linked to their rich emotional world. A world of feelings that children need to be familiar and in touch with. An emotional mental state they need to develop with those who have reached the age where they feel comfortable and confident to talk about it. Writing a book of stories coming from the experience of elderly people would enable young people to be in touch with the elderly and learn from them and from their experiences and wisdom. The most vulnerable children will have a chance to build meaningful relationships with “other adults” as sometimes their main carers struggle to offer and form “a secure attachment” (Bowlby, 1969). We do know the importance of social interaction and its link with a healthy, emotional and cognitive development; as Vygotsky strongly believed – community plays a central role in the process of “making meaning” (Vygotsky, 1978). Elderly people would feel recognised and valued as their “stories” are appreciated and will have an impact for the following generations. And how about making this process not just intergenerational but also intercultural? That would favour the exploration and understanding of different beliefs linked to different cultures aiming to support and value a multi-ethnic society where difference is “synonymous with strength”. intergenerational activities/age friendly by Graziella Ferigo