A care home is bringing children with special needs together with older people with dementia for a therapeutic singalong.
“I don’t really belong here you know,” says Sheila, who is 85, and has dementia.
“I don’t! Really! But the staff seem to know me and they’re always so nice.”
Sheila knows she is waiting for something to happen in the cosy room at the Beeches Care Home, in Leatherhead, Surrey, but is not quite clear what exactly. This kind of disorientation can make her very anxious and frightened, staff say.
But as the pupils from Woodlands School for children with special needs come in with their assistants, she relaxes.
“I recognise that there are young children and old people,” she says.
Then with a smile from ear to ear, she says: “What happens is always a big surprise.”
Sheila, one of a group of residents with memory impairment, has paired up with Zach, who has severe learning difficulties. He beats out the rhythm on the tambourine as the rest of the group of infant schoolchildren, octogenarians and care staff sing the Hello Song to him. It is clear from Sheila’s eyes that she is enjoying every minute, as she inclines her head towards Zach and joins in tapping on the tambourine.
And she’s not the only one. All the elderly residents in the room are getting involved with maracas and drums. Even severely depressed resident Michael is showing some signs of enjoyment, when his turn comes to tap the tambourine. He has formed a bond with a young boy called Rory, who lets out delighted shrieks in response to the sounds he hears.
So much so that arrangements have been made for Michael to go and visit Rory at the school, which is close by, in the near future.
This intergenerational circle time has had an unbelievable impact on the residents, says care home manager Michelle Daniels.
“We try all sorts of things to keep the residents entertained. That’s what we are here for – to try to make their lives as interesting as possible. But with this project, I’ve been blown away at the difference it’s made.”
She describes how it has helped to keep Sheila’s anxiety at bay and to bring Michael out of his self-enforced isolation.
“He always looks forward to the weekly sessions and relays this to us – his mood has improved and he engages better with staff,” she says.
Charlotte Miller, music therapist and director of Intergenerational Music Making which runs the sessions at Anchor Care Homes, explains that what may just seem like circle time with some old people taking part actually has a clinical underpinning. The techniques the music-makers use encourage these young children, for whom communication is a real challenge, to relate to the older people and others in their lives better.
And the residents are gently encouraged to be part of something beyond the care home.
“When we bring the children in, the atmosphere is non-threatening,” she says. “The elders are allowed to be caring for the young children, and that is very empowering for them as it turns their experience on its head.”
The children’s teacher, Stacey Pretara, says a lot of her class look forward to coming.
“They’ve been building up their communication skills with the elders and it’s been lovely seeing them build up relationships with each other.”
“The wonderful thing,” says Ms Daniels, “is that there are just no barriers. These children don’t have a preconceived idea about what the older generation is about and the older generation don’t have a preconceived idea of what these children are like.”
Another resident, Terry, 81, who has formed a bond with a young boy called Sailish, makes one last request, and off they go, happily singing Roll Out The Barrel together.