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Intergenerational practice breaks down barriers

Plays re-enacting street scenes from London’s East End and healthy eating projects raising awareness of the dangers of dripping and sugar sandwiches are just some of the features of intergenerational practice in the UK.

In October the first intergenerational centre in England is set to open providing shared services and facilities for children, older people, young people and families. The approach has been around for years, originating in the US in the 1960s, but the past five years have seen a large growth in projects across Europe.

In testimony to this the European Union has declared 2012 to be the European Year of Intergenerational Solidarity and this year saw the first large-scale government investment in intergenerational work in England in the form of £5.5m of funding distributed to 12 local authorities.

As with the US, in England the roots of intergenerational practice lie in the development of volunteering programmes by older people’s charities. But the emphasis now is on the development of equal relationships, whereas in the past the focus was on schemes where young people would visit to mow older people’s lawns or do their shopping.

Socially inclusive work

Alan Hatton-Yeo, director of the Centre For Intergenerational Practice, says that although the term “intergenerational practice” is relatively new, many community schemes deploying it have been around for a long time. “Good intergenerational work has always been good community work and there’s a danger of naming this as something different,” he says.

“Intergenerational work is socially inclusive. It’s about thinking how the young and the old can both be contributing members when you’re working with them.”

Co-location of social care professionals is a well-known way of encouraging better relationships to develop. Evidence from Europe suggests that this is also the case for people using services. The centre opening in October is at Merton, south London. It is funded by the London Development Agency and will offer IT facilities and training, reading and art sessions and sports to the borough’s residents.

Some sessions will be open to all the groups; others will operate separately. Denise Burke, head of youth and childcare at the LDA, says that although there is a lot of intergenerational practice going on, the centre is the first time it has operated out of a shared site. She believes this will bring an added dimension.

“There’s some real evidence that if you put services and groups together you break down barriers between them and you can improve education and tackle crime. It’s about generations being together and combating ageism,” she says.

Extended family

The break up of the extended family means older people and young people are less likely to come into contact than in years gone by. Hatton-Yeo says the spread of intergenerational practice in England depends on how much society wants to maintain communities.

“It asks some really big questions about the nature of the society we live in and whether we allow social isolation to increase or whether we think about what kind of social networks we need for the future,” he says.

There is a lack of evidence about what works in intergenerational practice but Hatton-Yeo says there has recently been a step change in the amount of evaluation taking place. The new government-funded projects will be evaluated and councils have until the end of March 2011 to spend their allocation. If the projects’ results are positive they could be the first of many.

Artistic magic

The intergenerational arts organisation Magic Me was set up in 1989. Its founder Susan Langford says: “There’s been a lot of work going on, some of which people are now deciding is intergenerational practice even though it’s been going on before and they wouldn’t have put a label on it.”

Intergenerational work can take several forms. It usually involves older people, young people and children but can also cover families. Magic Me’s projects include a scheme where older people worked with students and children to create a play re-enacting parts of their lives in Stepney, East London, such as running a fish stall in a street market; and a scheme in which older people and primary school children used the theme of adventure to create art work (see box, right).

Integrating ages

Older people and young people are often wary of each other. Two groups engaging in an activity separately at opposite ends of a hall defeats the object of intergenerational practice and activities need to be well organised to ensure relationships can be formed. The fact that older people have more life experience than younger people is also not a strong enough basis for an activity, because this in effect creates an unequal relationship.

“It’s very much about individuals and what each individual brings to the group,” says Langford. “It’s about using the dynamic of there being very different people in the room to do things that they couldn’t if it was just older people; and setting up activities that help people to form relationships.”

Older people and young people both have an image problem. Despite efforts by the government and charities, older people are seen as a drain on society by many. The media’s portrayal of young people as antisocial and apathetic is also widely accepted. The erosion of stereotypes between the groups is one of the main benefits of intergenerational work.

“It’s an opportunity for older people to find out what young people are really like and that the media is wrong,” says Langford.

She recalls how attending a Magic Me project changed one girl’s attitude towards older people: “The girl was in a supermarket which had run out of an ingredient that her mum had asked her to pick up for a recipe. She didn’t know what to get in its place and decided to ask an old lady who suggested something else she could buy instead. She said she would have been too scared to talk to an old person before.”

Published in the 25 June 2009 edition of Community Care under the heading Generation Game

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