Intergenerational Universities? Australia Looks to Intergenerational Care with Students

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Intergenerational activities at middle school and aged care home
Southern Montessori Middle School teams up with Kylara Aged Care for intergenerational activities

In 2019 a TV docuseries brought intergenerational care to Australians’ attention.

In ‘Old People’s Home for Four-Year-Olds’ a group of retirement village residents formed friendships, got mobile, and improved their mental health while doing activities with kids from a local childcare centre.

At the time Griffith University’s Intergenerational Care Project found that similar intergenerational programs improved the older participants’ mood, cognitive and physical performance, and sense of meaning.

Intergenerational care programs have since been popping up around Australia, mostly involving older people and young children. The question is, could older kids and young adults bring different benefits to intergenerational care?

“We’re trying to break down some of the stereotypes that older people have no value in society.”

Australia’s First Intergenerational Universities

The University of Wollongong (UoW) is banking on it, having just launched a development application for what it’s billing as Australia’s first intergenerational university community. The plan is for an on-campus Health and Wellbeing Precinct where aged care and retirement residents can mingle with university students and the wider community.  

A registered nurse and spokesperson from UoW said she hoped the project would “provide my students with the experience of caring for older people in really innovative ways, allowing us to research them, and allowing (older people) to live in a really innovative space.

Plans for an intergenerational campus at the University of Wollongong

We’re really hoping that the care that we provide in the precinct is going to promote wellbeing, and provide people with different experiences that allow them to really consider (things like) What is good healthcare? What does wellbeing really mean for people?”

The 3.5 hectare Precinct would include a retirement village of 220 apartments, a 120-bed aged care facility, a childcare centre and community health centres. There would also be a café, community hub, and a green space. The spokesperson said older residents could also participate in university courses as well as mingling with the community and students.

“We’re trying to break down some of the stereotypes that older people have no value in society.

“we’re saying that old people have value and we want our students to be able to see that. To see how much experience they have, and what they can learn from people who have had a life.”

“I think today we’ve become very disparate, and we don’t know our neighbours, and we don’t feel that we can talk to people, and that only enhances social isolation and the older person. And so we want to prevent that. We want to bring back the true nature of community.”

Intergenerational middle school
Southern Montessori Middle School moves in with Kalyra Woodcroft Aged Care

Intergenerational Universities are Popular Overseas

Community is one of several benefits of intergenerational universities, according to researcher Elizabeth Phillipson who wrote a 2015 report on the subject for the QLD government. In it she cites Harvard Medical School’s Dr George Vaillant on “some key requirements for a happy and healthy retirement”, which  include “remaining active, both physically and mentally, and maintaining friendships with younger people”.

That’s why more than 100 university-based aged care and retirement communities are thriving in the USA. Residents of ‘The Village’ at Penn State University, for example, have special access to campus activities including sporting and performing arts events, and they receive golf and sport lessons from college athletes. They contribute to campus as mentors and even inspire student-run news site ‘Our Grey Matters’.

Humanitas Deventer Retirement Home in the Netherlands tried a different approach. In 2012 it began offering university students free accommodation in the retirement home, in exchange for spending time with residents and the odd helping hand around the home. Humanitas Deventer CEO Gia Sigpkes said the idea brought warmth and companionship to the home.

“It’s a very good thing to connect young and old people together. They can offer each other very nice things in life,” she told ABC Radio National in 2015.

“The most benefit is for the elderly people. They say that the young ones bring the outside world inside their lives and their building.”

One of the students, Jurriën Mentink, told ABC Radio that “Elderly people are full of life. As a student, you can learn a lot.” But it seems there are also tough parts of making much older friends.

“People die,” Jurriën said.

“It is really difficult, but I can handle myself in that situation.”

Adelaide’s Intergenerational Middle School

That’s something that Southern Montessori Middle School hasn’t yet had to face. The decision to move the school next to Kylara Woolcroft Aged Care in Adelaide in 2019 was a godsend to residents during COVID-19. Jillian Dannenberg of Kylara Aged Care said they’d planned all sorts of activities before COVID intervened.

“We had already had a variety of interactions with the students and the residents,” Ms Dannenberg said. “And they were already starting to get together regarding music, and cooking, and just coming over to socialise during specific activities.

“The residents were also getting comfortable with going across to the school on specific days.”

“(The residents were) over the moon. Even now.”

“They love just listening to the students playing out in the courtyard, and talking and interacting. They wave to each other from the fences. When the students play basketball and stuff like that, the residents will call out to them. They love the idea of actually interacting with the youth.”

While they couldn’t see each other in person due to COVID, during 2020 the middle school students wrote letters to Kylara residents, made Christmas cards, and built raised garden beds.

“We haven’t put the garden beds in yet,” said Ms Dannenberg,” “because we’re waiting for the day that we can actually do it all together with the residents and the students.

Kylara and Southern Montessori hope to soon start the original plan, which includes a café with student baristas, shared music lessons, a men’s shed, cooking classes, and gardening projects among other activities.

An Intergenerational Future

It looks like there could be more and more opportunities for Australian retirees and aged care residents to be involved with youth through intergenerational programs. It’s proven to be more than a good idea. Let’s see what initiatives arise to bring together the old and the young in the future.

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