In this interview, we speak to teacher Yvonne Walker and others involved in an inspiring intergenerational partnership between Crosslet House – a care home for older people run by West Dunbartonshire Council and the nearby Braehead Primary School. Both are located in the town of Dumbarton in Scotland, with their collaborative work offering benefits for participants and the local community, as well as those further afield.
For those keen to discover the benefits that intergenerational work can bring, the partnership between Crosslet House care home and Braehead Primary School in the Scottish town of Dumbarton is an ideal project to look into. Pupils from the school have been teaming up with residents of the care setting (run by West Dunbartonshire Council) since 2018, with those involved in the venture undertaking activities including baking, gardening and exercise. Such is the success of the project; it was a winner in the Generations Working Together Excellence Awards for 2023 – recognised for its commitment to evaluating the effectiveness of its work.
“It was very overwhelming,” says Yvonne Walker, the teacher at Braehead Primary School responsible for the creation of the venture. “You never, ever do these things to win awards – you do it because it’s the right thing to do. The children and I were excited for the residents, and the residents were excited for us.”
Each academic year sees students from Yvonne’s class assigned a buddy from Crosslet House – a purpose-built care home with the ability to support up to 84 older people – with the relationships beginning with letters and a call via Google Meet. The children then visit the residents and continue their trips during the school year, with further examples of activities carried out within the partnership, such as reading and singing. “We [also] ensure that the residents visit the school and that they’re part of our school community, and that they get to meet other children and staff in the school [too],” Yvonne notes.
Yvonne first contacted Crosslet House to request a partnership between the facility and Braehead – a non-denominational setting with a pupil roll of around 265 – after noticing the lack of a robust community link between the school and care homes for older people. She met with the home in the summer of 2017, with both parties undertaking a risk assessment. However, it was during the following year that the project really took flight.
“The term starting in 2018, I had a Primary 7 class, and [a class] topic was World War Two, so we felt it would be really nice to find out information from the residents about what they remembered,” she explains. “It wasn’t really meant to go any further than a pen pal scheme at the beginning – it was just meant to be sending letters back and forth – but because the children were so excited and the residents were so happy, we went for a visit. They got on so well, we thought: ‘We can’t not go back.’”
The Covid-19 pandemic took its toll on both the care home and the school, with in-person visits between pupils and residents put on hold in light of the crisis. Despite this, residents and students kept in touch through Google Meet while the children were still attending the school site. Amid the remote learning period, residents provided words of positivity to motivate the students, and letter-writing and essay work from the pupils was forwarded to the care home by Yvonne. “The children and the residents were in contact the whole time [during the initial stages of Covid],” she says.
Braehead students were able to return to the care home in 2022, undertaking a garden visit with residents that was also attended by family members of the older adults. This academic year, pupils at the school have already made their first trip to Crosslet House, with an NHS team from Glasgow observing as part of a plan to monitor the student cohort’s journey on the project. In a 2022 inspection of the care home by Scotland’s Care Inspectorate, the setting was awarded ratings of “Very Good”, with its work with the school highlighted in the report.
Advantages for residents
Generations Working Together (GWT) supports the development and integration of intergenerational work in Scotland, with the charity noting that the benefits of practice of this kind include enhanced community cohesion, increased respect and understanding and improved health, wellbeing and social connections. Looking at a video on the GWT website about the project’s aforementioned award-win, it’s easy to observe the close bonds formed by the children and the care home residents. The pupils and the older adults are seen hugging each other and having fun with balloon tennis, with one resident even captured brushing a student’s hair. For the residents, the project’s benefits cover both the physical and mental dimensions.
“The residents are more willing to go to activities, or they join in more than they would have before,” Yvonne says. “When we leave the home and go back to school at lunchtime, the residents talk about the children for the rest of the day.”
“The children coming motivates our residents,” adds Veronica Loveridge, activity assistant at Crosslet House. “It helps with their physical and mental wellbeing. We tell them the children are coming in, and the next thing you know, they’re up and dressed.”
“Families of the residents are also quite empowered by the community spirit,” Yvonne says. “Some residents don’t have family though, and they feel that it’s lovely to be wanted. There are additionally a lot of exercise towers around the care home garden, and the residents try to be better than the children with them. I think for their moods, their participation and the family involvement, it’s made their day.”
Benefits for students
As GWT states, intergenerational work must be reciprocal, and it consequently needs to provide benefits to more than one generational group. However, the children involved in the project derive numerous advantages from being part of the venture.
“The children definitely develop a further understanding of respect and the value of people in society and the community, and how different people’s lives change,” Yvonne says – additionally noting that the project boosts students’ wellbeing and makes them want to go to school. “I think it can only be a good thing in terms of people understanding each other and the whole topic of being a citizen,” adds head teacher Anne McFarlane. “Of course, it’s [also] developing all the different skills within our children – their literacy skills, their numeracy skills and all the activities they do.”
“There’s a purpose [to students’ learning],” Yvonne says. “If they write a letter, for example, it’s sent, and they get a response, and I think there’s a real sense of excitement and willingness to be more involved. The children really want to show off and do well for the residents.”
The teacher highlights that the pupils are also finding out about the life cycle and dementia, as well as learning how to cope with bereavement. “The children are dealing with bereavement in the care home, and a lot of them are now saying: ‘It’s better to have known than have never known at all.’ We’ve had a couple of children lose their grandparents, and one of the girls last year said: ‘I can only speak to my friend in the care home about my gran.’ It’s lovely that she felt she could have that relationship.”
The partnership has had a reach that has extended far beyond the Dumbarton community. On top of involvement with the NHS in Glasgow, the project has seen Braehead pupils visit Glasgow Caledonian University, with the children involved in dialogue with professionals on intergenerational learning and the prospect of an intergenerational Scotland. The partnership’s win in the GWT Excellence Awards has been shared with over 19 countries, and Yvonne notes that this may encourage others to get involved in intergenerational work. “It’s given an opportunity for other people to see good work that’s going on in Scotland,” she says.
“I think intergenerational work is about keeping things simple and meaningful and ensuring that it’s a joyful thing,” says Anne. “It also takes people to have a passion for what they’re doing. It’ll only work if people have enthusiasm and passion and believe in it as well.”
However, all of the interviewees speak warmly about activity of this kind – and the positive effects it can have are evident. “Everybody can make a difference, and everybody can do intergenerational work if they really want to,” Yvonne says. “I think everybody should be doing it.”