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Once upon a time, grandparents used to play an active role in the lives of their grandchildren. Nowadays, with families increasingly living apart, spending time together is a challenge.
However, some are finding ways to form new intergenerational bonds from playgroups.
One of the things mother of two Chandani Ramasundara missed when she arrived in Canberra ten years ago was the multigenerational family environment she grew up with in Sri Lanka.
“In our household, grandparents had very major role in bringing up our grandchildren but when I migrated here to Canberra I realised that people here prefer independent living.”
With her parents living in Sri Lanka, Ramasundara’s children are used to seeing their grandparents online rather than in real life.
When she heard of an intergenerational playgroup being set up for the residents at Miranjani Hostel, she realised it would be the perfect opportunity for her children to mingle with people from different generations.
“My parents are back home so my children didn’t get to interact with their grandparents so this playgroup supported me, my children interacting with this older generation. It was so lovely. I think they’re the best parenting manuals.”
Ramasundara soon decided to become a volunteer after her first visit to the Weston intergenerational playgroup.
Three years on, she has helped to form five playgroups for little ones and the young at heart in the Australian Capital Territory.
“When I moved here, I didn’t have anyone apart from my husband and husband’s family. This helped me a lot - not just ease my isolation, just with everything, so I feel like I’m in my home community.”
Playgroups are traditionally set up and run by the parents or caregivers of preschool children.
Intergenerational playgroups, on the other hand, add a third generation to the mix.
Singing nursery rhymes together is a normal routine.
“So these playgroups are established in a variety of aged care settings like retirement villages, community-based day clubs. What we do here: we get residents from nursing homes, bring them to a play room and then we invite children under fives to come with parents, play together, interact together.”
94 year-old Dr. Ken Huton-He has been attending the Weston intergenerational playgroup on Mondays since it started.
He may have started to forget things after recently being diagnosed with dementia but playing with his little buddies is something he still looks forward to every week.
“Crystal and Archie come on a regular basis so I am very pleased with that.”
Ramasundara explains the special bond Dr Huton-He shares with three-year-old Archie who has been coming to the playgroup since he was a three-month-old baby.
“Because Ken was a pilot as well so he loves playing with the aeroplanes, so Archie takes the aeroplanes to him and playing with him all the time. Even after the playgroups, they visiting him, and they have a very good relation like a family member."
82-year-old Iris Mallam helps prepare the morning tea. Like Dr Huton-He, Monday mornings are her favourite time of the week.
“Seeing them come through with their smiley faces, it’s just a lovely morning. To be truthful, it goes too quick! I’ve got three lovely grandsons but unfortunately they are in Queensland.”
Sydney University aged care and dementia expert Professor Susan Kurrle has seen such intergenerational interactions being facilitated across Australian age care facilities in her clinical work for over ten years.
“They’ll will run over and sit on their knee and ask to be read a story or to talk about something and the joy that you see on older people’s faces with those interactions is so important to their future happiness in terms of ‘not just waiting to die’ as one lady said. They have a playgroup comes to visit them every two weeks and I would say that particular residential facility, they really hang out for that day."
Professor Kurrle has seen positive changes in the moods of elderly patients with dementia when little ones visit.
“One lady was reading The very hungry caterpillar to two little three and a half, four year olds and when she finished, they said, ‘Again! Again!’, and so she read it again, and the staff said she read it nine times, and the children were thrilled, and, of course, she hadn’t remembered she’d done it before because of her memory problems. The joy that was working both ways in that interaction was amazing.”
One in three Australians aged over sixty-five were born overseas with some mostly speaking a non-English language but verbal communication isn’t an issue with laughter and dancing being a universal language.
“I remember seeing a Greek facility and they had the children copying them in their dancing and the staff said there were people getting up who hadn’t really wanted to get out of their chairs for months, and when the children were there clapping, and everybody got up and danced. So it’s bringing that joy in life back to older people.”
Professor Kurrle says it’s only a matter of time for more intergenerational programmes to be introduced into the aged care sector.
“It’s worth every second you put into it. It’s just wonderful to see the returns and my hope would be we will see a lot more of this happening once people realise it can be done.”