By Cathy Withiel
“Yesterday this adorable little toddler fished out butterfly wings and a black cap from the dress-up box and gave it to me to put on,” Heather Easterby says.
“So I started flapping my wings and making butterfly sounds, not that they really make any noise.”
The 98-year-old explodes into fits of laughter.
“I told my friends all about it at dinner and how funny it will be when the little ones pick out a hilarious pink and yellow wig I spotted in the box for me to try on.”
It’s conversations like this that reflect the magical new energy and joy among residents at Uniting AgeWell Andrew Kerr Care Community since the opening of The Herd Intergenerational Learning Centre (ILC) earlier this year.
It is the first centre of its kind in Australia built under the same roof as an aged care facility and it caters for 66 children aged from six weeks to four years.
Already it’s bringing great benefits to young and old alike.
Residents of the aged care facility, or “grandfriends” as the children fondly call them, regularly come together with the children to share scheduled activities, including art, music and storytelling.
The residents can also visit a special lounge space whenever they want to watch the children play and there are opportunities for spontaneous interactions, like when the baby buggy spins around the home for a visit, bringing sunshine and smiles with them.
And the visits go the other way too, with opportunities for residents, who have undergone Working with Children checks, to volunteer at the centre, helping with activities such as story-time.
There’s a new zest for life in the air that is best measured by the width of the residents’ smiles, the sparkle in their eyes and the increased volume of laughter as they swap stories about their time with the children.
Like Heather, who says “I’m having such fun! I was reading to a little boy and then he pointed to some bubbles, so I started blowing them with him which he loved.”
Her eyes grow misty, “and when he put his plump little arms around me and hugged me, well … my heart just melted.”
So what is this magic formula that’s causing such happiness?
It’s the age-old concept of a village raising a child; the intergenerational approach where the young and the old learn from each other in a continuum of love and care that enriches the lives of both.
Not only in the human but in the animal world, as the Herd name pays homage to the respect that elephants have for elderly herd members.
Research shows intergenerational care can improve the quality of life of aged-care residents,
reduce the risk of developing dementia and combat isolation and loneliness in older people, while children can also benefit, developing higher levels of empathy and social acceptance.
But you don’t need textbook knowledge to see this in action at the centre.
“I am confident The Herd will be seen as an exemplar of how intergenerational centres can improve the quality of life for older and younger generations,” Uniting AgeWell CEO Andrew Kinnersly says.
“Children bring joy and when young and old get together the dynamic changes and brings with it renewed energy.”
Creating meaning and purpose for older people can’t be underestimated.
Like the resident with no family of their own, who now feels a compelling reason to get out of bed each day.
“Enabling older people living in residential care to continue to contribute and to engage with their community is extremely important,” Andrew says.
“It’s why we are excited by the opportunities this innovative centre presents.”
There’s also the healing power of fun.
Just ask 86-year-old Suzanne Phillips.
“At our age we mostly all have aches and pains, and having fun with the little ones makes you forget about this,” she says.
“Playing with the children is an almost magical joy.
“They have certainly changed the atmosphere, it’s always such a buzz when we talk about what the kids have been getting up to.”
But good things take time, and the incredible five-year journey from an inspirational idea by sisters, early childhood teachers and Herd co-founders, Fiona and Anna Glumac, to the opening of the
Mornington centre earlier this year, was outlined at the official opening ceremony on March 3.
Touched by the experience of their much adored late grandmother Mary, who spent the last years of her life in residential aged care, and moved by a documentary on an intergenerational care centre in Seattle in the USA, the sisters were determined to bring the same model of care to Australia.
“When our beautiful Grandma made the transition to residential aged care, it was heartbreaking to see some of her spark fade,” Anna says.
“She lit up around young children, so a program like this would have been life giving.”
Anna and Fiona were determined to make their dream a bricks-and-mortar reality and embarked on the seemingly impossible quest to find an aged care organisation as visionary as they are.
They eventually found that organisation at Andrew Kerr Care Community in Mornington.
With a commitment to creating thriving and inclusive communities where innovative, high-quality aged care services are delivered with respect and kindness, it is no surprise that the board of Uniting AgeWell committed the operational and financial support to develop the centre.
Together with a generous grant from the Victorian Government, and philanthropic and community donations, what has emerged is a transformational intergenerational program within a beautiful, purpose-built centre.
The long journey has been worth it.
“When you have the privilege of observing these intergenerational connections, you truly feel what it is to be human,” Fiona says.
“Intergenerational learning is humanity epitomised.
“It’s the heart connections and the shared joy that also comes with the deep awareness of each other’s vulnerabilities.”
The intergenerational approach was mirrored at the ceremony itself when residents Rose and Barry Smith and two VIPs (very important little people) Isla Tierney and ShivOm Adhikari from The Herd ILC, cut the ribbon.
Retired teacher Barry says The Herd ILC has brought “a greater sense of community into our home, a great enjoyment that enriches the lives of residents and children”, while Rose says “everyone brightens up when young ones are around”.
The staff at Uniting AgeWell have also noticed the “brighter vibe” in the home.
Some staff members with young children have already enrolled their children at the centre and are thrilled at the convenience and joy of being so close to them.
Cleaning supervisor Ash McSweeney says it’s wonderful to have her three-year-old son, Mason, close by.
“Mason loves playing trucks with the residents and enjoys having stories read to him. The residents love it when he high-fives them,” Ash says.
Care Manager Sunayana ‘Sunny’ Nepal says little ShivOm loves to climb up on wheelchairs to sit on residents’ laps.
“I can already see a huge improvement in his speech since he’s been there. He says ‘ball’ and ‘cat’ now,” Sunayana says.
The last word belongs to Synod Moderator Rev David Fotheringham, who says the centre creates joy at all levels.
“It’s wonderful to see Uniting AgeWell getting behind projects like this, and it augurs well for the future of community care,” he says.