St Joseph’s Care Home in Tring, Hertfordshire, originally opened its doors to babies and toddlers in Spring 2017. It was a brave new step by Charley Allen, the Activities Co-ordinator, after I suggested it on the local social media site. As a mother of two young children, and new to the area, I was keen for us to make new friends with people of all ages. It is always the elderly folk in the community who take time to have a chat with young parents, cooing over prams or commenting on how they used to have that kind of energy, whilst resting on a park bench, my boys racing around our feet.
We’re over a year on and the playgroup, Babbles and Bubbles at St. Joe’s, has grown in confidence, if not in size, and is attracting the attention of other local care homes, keen to replicate the environment that only little children can bring to a home. I’ve written and spoken before about the mutual benefits of inter-generational opportunities and I was delighted to learn that a local nursery for babies and toddlers have set up their own weekly visits to the care home, starting projects to suit both the young children and older adults, co-organised by the care home and nursery. I love this idea and hope that other nurseries and pre-schools feel inspired to follow suit.
St Joseph’s Care Home provides specialist care for those living with dementia, a necessary provision considering that over 70% of residents in care homes suffer from dementia, a figure that is set to rise as “225,000 people will develop dementia in the UK this year, that’s one every three minutes”. Dementia is a miserable and confusing condition that describes different brain disorders that trigger a loss of brain function. There are many different types of dementia, but most share common symptoms: memory loss, confusion, problems with speech and understanding.
The first time I experienced the effects of dementia was when my physically very active grandfather, an octogenarian vegan, who practised yoga every day, was diagnosed and rapidly declined in health. He also stopped speaking English, the language he’d spoken for most of his life, reverting to his first language, Punjabi. He had known me for thirty years but suddenly had no idea who I was. Nor did he recognise his child. This was very upsetting for my mother, who soon realised that she’d lost her only parent forever. Yet, he wasn’t lost. We found ways to communicate again and all sought comfort in the religious music of his life, music that he would have heard as a child and as an adult. My nephew was born around that time and managed to visit his great grandfather in his final weeks. The immediate joy that that baby brought was immeasurable. My grandfather did not seem to understand that it was his own great grandson, but that didn’t seem to matter. What counted was the delight in life, simple movements and first babbling sounds. The language and memory barrier was broken by smiles, songs and clapping.
It’s now six years since my grandfather’s death and I remember the happiness that those visits brought. He was the longest surviving of my grandparents and it’s a shame that he never got to meet my children. Yet, there are many older adults in our immediate community who can benefit from the company of small children and that is what our playgroup in the care home is all about. Not all the residents have their own families nearby and even those with regular visitors appreciate the company and fun. They may not remember the children’s names or faces, but they all seem to remember the experience and the positive emotions that their presence brings. The classic nursery rhymes that we sing unite us all and there’s a truly uplifting power of singing, especially when you realise that everybody knows all the words. The children who’ve been attending regularly feel comfortable in the home too and approach the residents with their own greetings and questions. But the older children of the group are starting school soon, or attending pre-schools instead, so it’s important for the playgroup to keep attracting new families.
If I’m lucky enough to live into my eighties, I hope that I’ll be living in a community where people of different ages and generations are encouraged to mix and socialise. If I’m unlucky enough to be one of the 2+ million people estimated to be living with dementia by 2051, I truly hope that someone will bring me a little joy: singing old nursery rhymes with little children, giggling together as we try to pop the bubbles.