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Researchers test intergenerational model of respite care

Researchers Anneke Fitzgerald, Katrina Radford and Nerina Vecchio. In foreground: Jade Flinders with elder Ruby List.

A formal program to bring together the young and old may offer an attractive alternative model of respite care. Jackie Keast reports.

Researchers from Griffith University are exploring an intergenerational care model that would see respite care united with child care, harnessing the benefits of intergenerational mixing.

Professor Anneke Fitzgerald told Community Care Review the initial idea came about from a conversation with her daughter, who is a child care worker, about some of the difficulties she was experiencing at work.

Fitzgerald, who previously worked as a registered nurse and a health services manager, found herself sympathising, having faced similar issues in the aged care environment.

She realised there must be more scope for the two industries to collaborate, bringing together children and older people for mutual benefit and social interaction.

“It arose from thinking – ‘Wow, why isn’t it normal to bring up children with the help of older people?’” she says.

From there, Professor Fitzgerald, along with colleagues Dr Nerina Vecchio and Dr Katrina Radford, began to look at how an intergenerational care model would work.

In particular, they wanted a model that could potentially delay early cognitive decline in older people, allowing them to continue to live in the community for as long as possible. This was something they found had not been evaluated before in previous examples of intergenerational programs, both in Australia and overseas.

The researchers have completed a literature review and presented potential models to experts in the industry across child care, aged care and dementia care.

Fitzgerald says the industry has responded enthusiastically. The model that has excited them most is that of a dual campus, where an early childhood learning centre and respite day care centre could be placed side by side with common facilities.

One of the challenges of bringing child care and respite together is that child care standards often include an educational component. However, for Fitzgerald this represents an opportunity to embed continued education into respite care and track early cognitive decline.

“Regular monitoring of cognitive development in children is very common, whereas monitoring of development or decline in older people is not done until there is actually an issue,” said Fitzgerald.

She would like to see all activities in the centre guided by a curriculum which would, when appropriate, see the young learning from the old, and the old learning from the young.

“It may very well be that older people learn very well from children, like children learn very well from older people,” says Fitzgerald.

“If you just imagine a picture of an older person sitting with an iPad being taught by a four-year-old how to swipe from one window to another, then that is exactly what we are talking about.”

The idea of a formal curriculum for older people, especially one which also involves the transferring of knowledge back to children, is something Fitzgerald says hasn’t been well explored before and needs to be developed as part of the program.

“When we talk about life-long learning, do we really talk about life-long learning? When does that stop?” she says.

Results against this curriculum would be monitored and evaluated to assess how successful the program is in delaying a move to a residential facility.

Older people would come together with children when there were activities that would complement each other’s curriculum, building on already established research that intergenerational mixing had psychological and social benefits.

Fitzgerald says that in particular, these activities would provide older people with purpose and a sense of value for their contribution to children’s development; a reason to “get out of bed in the morning”.

“If you are part of a curriculum where it’s your turn to read to the children at 10 o’clock, then you have got a much more purposeful life,” she says.

It’s likely such a model will help to create an age-friendly community where the young and old are not siloed apart from each other, says Fitzgerald, allowing for better intergenerational understanding.

Nerina Vecchio says an intergenerational care program that allows older people to feel valued and monitors cognitive impairment may provide an attractive alternative model as demand for respite increases into the future.

“There’s been this old world view that respite is for the caregiver, but now that we’re moving towards consumer directed care, we also need to look at what is in it for the care recipient as well. What are they getting out of it?” says Vecchio.

An intergenerational model may also suit caregivers of the “sandwich generation”, who are caring for younger children and older parents at the same time, she says.

Beyond this, Vecchio predicts it will likely be cost-effective to run a dual campus centre, as there will be overlaps of resources – in administration, staff, car parking and other facilities.

An additional potential benefit is that there may also be workforce opportunities for staff, in that an intergenerational centre could create a space for both respite and child care workers to extend their careers.

Fitzgerald says their research team is examining where aged care and child care assistants’ roles overlap, and what skills an intergenerational worker would need. Other issues, such as regulations for working with children, would also need to be negotiated.

The researchers are currently estimating the broader community interest in the model through a feasibility study. If this study shows demand, the researchers will look to conducting a trial alongside an industry partner.

Participate in the project by completing an online survey.

This article appears in the current edition of Community Care Review (February edition).

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