Bridging the generation gap to help people with dementia

Natalie Valios reports on how both young and old benefited from a project to improve the well-being of residents with dementia in a nursing home

Natalie Valios reports on how both young and old benefited from a project to improve the well-being of residents in a nursing home

(picture: volunteer Amy Clutterbuck and manager Lesley Hobbs)

Project details

Name of project: Bridging the Generation Gap; Brunelcare’s Deerhurst House nursing home, Bristol.

Aims and objectives: To increase social stimulation and engage residents in meaningful activities, through spending time with young volunteers.

Number of volunteers: 12 young people.

Number of staff: Two to train volunteers; 10 to oversee them; one to monitor outcomes.

Number of service users: Six.

Funding: Negligible – Brunelcare provided a minibus to take students to and from the home and supplied drinks and snacks.

Outcomes: Well-being and social interaction improved – residents were more willing and better able to initiate conversation and were happier


Volunteers from a school in Bristol proved so adept at improving the well-being of residents with dementia at a nursing home run by Brunelcare that the provider is now looking to roll out inter-generational support to other services.

The initiative emerged after Deerhurst House manager Lesley Hobbs became concerned that some residents were lacking one-to-one stimulation because staff were busy and had to prioritise personal care.

The husband of a resident had also noticed this. As emeritus professor of behaviour studies at the University of Gloucestershire, Tony Charlton had seen the success of peer support where older children helped younger children cope with issues such as bereavement and bullying. He suggested that Deerhurst House link up with a school or college to use young volunteers to engage with residents.

Hobbs and Charlton had contacts at Ashton Park School so it seemed the obvious choice. Twelve 16- to 18-year-olds came on board, received Criminal Records Bureau checks and had three training sessions. Delivered by Hobbs, Charlton and a senior care worker, they focused on person-centred care, activity work and basic counselling skills.

Six residents – five of whom had dementia – took part, with students grouped into pairs to work with them. Students and residents provided descriptions of themselves so Hobbs could match those with something in common, such as an interest in music, books or painting.

The six weekly visits started in February 2010. Students met Hobbs before and after each of the hour-long sessions to talk through any issues and were asked to write a summary of the visits as aides memoires. The sessions were led by what residents wanted to do, and could involve talking about their life and looking at photographs to encourage reminiscence, going for a walk, playing games, or activities such as gardening or cooking.

“To make sure the initiative was a continuous feature over the six weeks we asked students to write a letter to their resident after each session and these were given to residents on the Friday,” Hobbs says. “The letters said how much they had enjoyed visiting them and they were looking forward to seeing them next week and included their photographs.”

Outcomes were measured by Hobbs and Stuart Wright, Brunelcare’s dementia care champion. A baseline measurement was recorded for each resident before the initiative began, and then during and after sessions.

“Residents’ well-being shot right up when they were with the students,” says Wright. “They were more able to speak for themselves and demonstrate satisfaction and happiness.”

As well-being increased, so ill-being – such as distress, tearfulness and withdrawal – decreased.

In the past, staff became frustrated by the lack of response from residents when they tried to engage them. One aim of the initiative was to show staff that every daily task, such as helping someone out of bed, is a chance to interact on a one-to-one basis.

“A couple of months after the initiative there was still a continuing effect,” Wright says. “You can only sustain that with constant input and staff are doing this far more now by making sure that every interaction is a positive one.”

Emerging evidence suggests that models like the one at Deerhurst House have a significant impact on all participants, says Louise Middleton, manager of the Centre for Intergenerational Practice, which promotes such initiatives: “The older people gain enjoyment, stimulation and companionship and the young people develop their interpersonal skills and empathy,” she says. “Equally important, they gain a greater positive understanding of older people in the context of our ageing society.”

Wright is now considering replicating the idea – or drawing on young people in other ways – in some of Brunelcare’s other homes, sheltered housing and lunch clubs. “You need to get colleges on board because it is a huge opportunity to open up the care sector and show prospective employees that there is a good way to work,” he says. “It benefits residents, educates your staff and prepares care workers of the future.”

Case study: ‘It made me realise this is where my interest lies’

Amy Clutterbuck was studying for A-levels in maths, biology and history at Ashton Park School when she heard that Deerhurst House was looking for volunteers to take part in its Bridging the Generation Gap initiative.

“I had worked with children to get them engaged in life through sport so I knew I liked working with people, but I had never done anything with older people and I was interested to see how I could make a difference,” she says.

Many people have preconceptions about nursing homes and the 12 volunteers were no exception, says Clutterbuck. “You think that a nursing home is a full of people sitting around in a room doing nothing. Deerhurst couldn’t be more different and the vibe was energetic and happy, so the thought that we could help those who weren’t engaging in that atmosphere inspired us.”

Clutterbuck and another student, Annie Archer, were paired with Doreen. “Doreen was quiet, has dementia and her hearing isn’t great,” says Clutterbuck. “Although she wasn’t necessarily unhappy, she wouldn’t talk to other residents.

“The first step was trying to persuade Doreen to chat to us because she seemed happy to sit there and not take part in anything. Every week we had to slowly build up a relationship and try to involve her in activities.”

Three weeks in came a breakthrough, says Clutterbuck. “We decided to do some gardening and Annie and I brought in pots and bulbs and Doreen helped plant them. That was a step forward because it involved the three of us in an activity, before we had just been talking.

“There was a party at Deerhurst on the last session and this was the biggest achievement because Doreen was interacting with other residents. It was the first time we had seen her happy talking to them and she even got up and danced. It was really rewarding.”

Clutterbuck is now studying human sciences at Oxford University and is hoping to work in health development. “This experience has made me realise this is where my interest lies,” she says of her time at Deerhurst House.

Meanwhile, she plans to keep in touch with Doreen. “I want to continue seeing Doreen whenever I can because I know the difference just one visit can make now,” she says.

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