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Intergenerational learning takes off

Danny Scott / 22 September 2015

Intergenerational projects are springing up across the UK and the good news is that everyone benefits when young and old get together for fun and learning.

Young woman learning carpentry
Swapping skills has benefits for both young and old

'Ever since I was at university, I wanted to have a go at something creative,’ says retired teacher Michael Rafferty. ‘It just never happened. Now, here I am at 75, learning how to make and direct short films.’

Michael retired at 55 and settled into a life of afternoon TV, the snooker hall and his mates at the pub. He and his wife Pat have seven children and nine grandchildren, so there was plenty to keep him busy, but he felt annoyed that the wider world seemed to be denying him opportunities to do something more imaginative or constructive. ‘It was, “Ah, you’re just an old fella – move over and make way for somebody else”,’ he says.

Then, seven years ago, he heard about Spring Chickens, a group run by the theatre company Big Telly in nearby Portstewart, Co Coleraine, where media-savvy students from local art colleges and schools teach film and theatre skills to older residents. He walked into a room full of people, from teenagers to a 90-year-old lady, to find youngsters encouraging him to create art. ‘They were teaching me how to use a camera and telling me that I could act.’

Since then, Michael has worked on films, written scripts and his dramatic input includes a role in the play The Coleraine Show at the local Riverside Theatre, which was also shown live online. ‘My daughter in London rang me that night and said, “Dad, we were watching you. You were great”,’ recalls Michael proudly. ‘OK, I know I’ll never be Liam Neeson, but if Hollywood came calling tomorrow, I’d jump at the chance! The youngsters have made me feel so engaged with the world.’

Spring Chickens has changed the lives of its younger participants, too.

‘I was very shy,’ says 20-year-old student Danie Millar, who has given lessons on film and sound-recording. ‘But at Spring Chickens I had to stand in front of a group discussing story ideas, and show people how to use equipment. Everybody was crowding round, wanting to know how it was done. It’s helped me so much, personally and professionally.

‘The majority of my generation think that all older people are a bit miserable,’ she adds. ‘But I’ve often found them easier to talk to than people my own age. They don’t judge me like my peers, which is something that’s affected my self-confidence.’

Countless benefits

Spring Chickens is one of hundreds of intergenerational projects around Britain – from baking groups in London to a 170-strong choir in Hull and mentoring in Glasgow. All work hard to bring together young and old – who are in danger of losing touch with each other in an increasingly fragmented society – to swap skills and stories as well as build friendships.

In the past, young children, teenagers and older people would have spent much more time together, giving each other emotional support and sharing wisdom, in close-knit communities or extended families, says Alan Hatton-Yeo, researcher and specialist in developing positive ways for older people to remain valued members of society. ‘Now, older people are living longer and are seen as a financial burden.’ Youngsters can be maligned as petty criminals or lazy.

Intergenerational groups can change that, says Hatton-Yeo. ‘One of the first big studies I was involved in, in the early Nineties, brought older people into secondary schools to work with Year 7 pupils who were at risk of failure. Almost immediately, the children’s self-esteem improved, as did their attendance and their achievement. The older people felt useful, and their mental and physical health improved.’

More recent studies have observed that students with older adult tutors make some 60% more progress in critical reading skills. Older adults who regularly volunteer with children, meanwhile, have been found to burn 20% more calories, experience fewer falls and perform better in memory tests.

‘All the evidence has shown that, when different generations do meet, everyone benefits,’ says Hatton-Yeo.

The Glasgow-based Generations Working Together (GWT) has partnered with the Government, police, Education Scotland and countless community groups to set up 32 local networks that provide support for hundreds of different Scottish projects. They include an allotment scheme that introduced youngsters to gardening and the Knitting Mania project, where older volunteers passed on craft skills to children from the local Carlibar Primary School in Glasgow.

‘We’re all living longer, so health and wellbeing projects are particularly important,’ says Alison Clyde, GWT’s national development manager. ‘We’re now starting to work with dementia and Parkinson’s charities, and we’re also targeting big employers in Scotland, talking to them about the older workforce acting as mentors for young people who are struggling to find a future.

‘Everybody has something to offer… young and old. Swapping skills is a wonderful way to build relationships. It also reduces isolation, depression and ageism on both sides of the fence.’

University College London students Kate Hamblin, 21, and Rebecca Johnson, 20, have been leading the UCL Baking Project for the past two years. Working in conjunction with local care homes and sheltered-housing schemes in Camden, North London, the pair teach cooking skills and host regular bake-off sessions with groups that range from their mid-50s to mid-90s.

Bringing generations together

‘Though this is an intergenerational project,’ says Kate, ‘I see it as just a few people getting together to have a laugh. Some people are learning to bake for the first time, but a lot of the older ladies have been baking all their lives and they start showing us what to do. They certainly do like to be in charge!

‘In the beginning, some of the older residents we met were quite negative about the student population in Camden; they didn’t like how the area had changed and they often saw the younger generation as a threat. I hope the Baking Project showed them that we’re not all hoodies!

‘It’s certainly had a massive effect on me,’ she adds. ‘I started listening to some of the older people’s stories about how tough it had been growing up in London. One lady told me the houses were so bug-infested that she used to wrap a sheet round her when she went to the toilet at night, otherwise she’d be covered in them!

I made these amazing accounts the subject of my geography degree dissertation, Growing Old in Camden.’

Even the Brownies are going intergenerational these days. For the past three years, the 3rd Erskine Brownies in Renfrewshire have been working with the national charity Contact the Elderly, hosting regular afternoon parties at a local community centre. Sometimes the older guests help the girls with their school projects, and the 20-strong group has also got stuck in to some Kirstie Allsopp-style homemade craft projects.

‘Before I got involved with the parties, my only contact with old people was with my grandparents,’ says nine-year-old Emma. ‘But meeting them all has made me realise that age is just a number. One of the ladies was partially sighted. I was a bit nervous at first, but she didn’t mind me asking questions and it was great to see her joining in the party and having fun.’

What better way to bring people together than having a good sing-song… or picking up a ukulele?

Over the past three years, West Yorkshire’s Kirklees Neighbourhood Housing – together with Kirklees Music School and community body Local Services 2 You – has co-ordinated the hugely successful Community Ukulele Group. Each week during term time, students join keen locals and residents at Brooklands independent living complex, where they belt out the likes of Rock Around the Clock and Twist and Shout.

The sessions are led by music school pupils, but the older and younger generations help each other practise and swap stories about the music they like. Lady Gaga has been mentioned, but none of her songs has made it into the group’s repertoire… yet!

‘After I retired, I became a full-time carer, so I never really had much time to get involved with the local community,’ says ukulele regular Dot Freeman, 58. ‘Joining the group gave me friends and a social life. Learning an instrument with children is so inspiring. I love to listen to their voices and watch their faces when we’re rehearsing. They have no inhibitions. That’s one of the things I learned from them. Don’t worry about what might happen… just go for it!’

An intergenerational choir in nearby Hull was so successful that it swelled to 170 members, aged eight to 80, and headlined a concert in Hull City Hall last March – a venue that’s hosted gigs by the likes of The Who.

Interestingly, the original idea for the choir came from the local NHS Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG). ‘I’m sure most people think the NHS is there only to put your leg in plaster,’ says Sam Barlow, a commissioning manager for Hull CCG. ‘But compared with traditional medical funding, the choir turned out to be a very cost-effective way of improving physical and psychological health. Participants reported improved breathing, and many said they just felt… brighter. All of this, we’d assume, means less contact with their GP.

‘Some of the younger singers had very difficult backgrounds, with little or no contact with parents or grandparents,’ Barlow adds. ‘A few of the children adopted new “grandparents” and some friendships had huge knock-on effects. One of the older ladies had recently lost her husband and mixing with the kids just seemed to lift some of the weight from her shoulders. Her daughter said, “Mum, you’ve changed. We can hear the happiness in your voice”.’

Whether it’s a product of media hype or genuine social change, today’s older generation is more cautious – some might say frightened – when it comes to dealing with teenagers. ‘Time was when you used to know everybody but that’s all changed,’ says Ray Gipson, 74, who’s lived in Tower Hamlets all his life. ‘The pubs have all been turned into posh flats. The old ’uns are the ones that get left out in the cold… bewildered by the area they grew up in. You see a young kid of 14 or 15 and he might be six foot tall. You’re scared to go out at night.’

Partly in an effort to rebuild community cohesion, Ray – with the help of Age UK – set up The Geezers Club, a weekly get-together of old East Enders. ‘We’ve arranged visits to museums and football grounds, but we’ve also been mentoring some of the young lads in the area. You’d think they wouldn’t be interested in talking to a bunch of codgers like us, but we’ve got a few ex-boxers and the teenagers love all their stories. Ted Lewis – he’s 87! – used to be a fairground fighter. He’s only a small fella, but he’s tough.’

Ted and the other Geezers have taught the youngsters how the training, dedication and discipline required for boxing can turn your life around. Some of the Geezers have talked about the mistakes they had made in their lives, and how this new generation of East Londoners can learn from them.

Ray says that many kids have even taken up boxing themselves. ‘When I see those lads in the ring, it makes me so proud. Bringing the different generations together isn’t the answer to everything, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction. We helped each other and, at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about, innit?’

Want to get involved? Here’s a pick of some of the best intergenerational projects around the UK

The Centre For Intergenerational Practice (an initiative of The Beth Johnson Foundation) has been supporting intergenerational work since 2001. As well as overseeing projects that range from job coaching to gardening, the centre acts as a one-stop shop for anyone interested in intergenerational work. 01782 844036,

The London Bubble Theatre Company run regular intergenerational theatre workshops, often based around serious and challenging topics – their last project explored increasing disengagement with the political system! 020 7237 4434,

Communities Together in north Pembrokeshire run a range of activities from sports days to IT-learning sessions. Got an idea for your own intergenerational activities day? Get in touch with Project Manager, Marc Mordey on 07474 006269.

Derbyshire County Council has implemented the Derbyshire Intergenerational Strategy, organising book groups, digital photography sessions and even a football refereeing scheme, the Derbyshire Football League Junior Referees & Older Mentors. Contact Gill Clarke: 01629 537681,

Respected and well-established intergeneration arts organisation, Magic Me, have created everything from cocktail parties to local history classes and were behind the national Bin Ageism Campaign, tackling age based prejudice. For more details on their packed intergenerational programme, contact: 0203 222 6064,

Glasgow-based group Generations Working Together is a support network for dozens of intergenerational groups across Scotland, covering the likes of craft and gardening.

Age UK supports numerous intergenerational projects around the UK. See for more details.

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