Never too old to grow love of learning

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Norm Hillier, 95, chats with students of Our Lady Queen of Peace Greystanes. PHOTO: Alphonsus Fok

A group of aged care residents in Sydney’s west have discovered that you are never too old to learn after sharing lessons with local primary school students as part of an innovative research program.

Year 6 students at Our Lady Queen of Peace Primary School in Greystanes invited seven residents of Southern Cross Care to participate in reciprocal and mutual learning activities aligned with the school curriculum that were aided by regular video conferencing sessions.

The initiative, part of a research project on inter-generational learning carried out by Griffith University researcher Greg Cronan, is yielding results, including an increase in vocabulary and other language skills among the students and a huge boost in well-being for the older group.

I’m pretty stunned by the results,” he said, adding that studies show that meaningful and mentally-stimulating activities have been helped to slow the onset of dementia and similar age-related conditions.

“And all of this without medication, just the basics of genuine, meaningful, purposeful dialogue and discussion.

Intergenerational learning researcher Greg Cronan (left) with Our Lady Queen of Peace school principal Michael Hopley. PHOTO: Alphonsus Fok

“The age group of 65 and up will double in the next 15-20 years while the number of 85s and above will quadruple so this also a subtle way to connect the future workforce with those who need support in their later years, while fostering empathy, compassion and respect in the younger generation.”

Karen Blackmore, facility manager at Southern Cross, said the participants selected for the research program had been suffering from depression and social isolation but their involvement had brought about drastic changes including better sleeping and eating habits.

“They have got so much out of it, and it has made a big difference,” she said.

“Whereas before they would have kept to themselves in their rooms, they now look forward to the days with the children, they initiate conversations with other residents and staff.

“Their families report that their mood has improved as well, that they can relate better to their Great grandchildren.”

The conversations and preparatory questionnaires sparked learning on both sides of the age divide, with the youngsters and their grey-haired counterparts asked to consider topics and share their own experiences relating to health and lifestyle, history, happiness and faith.

Questions such as ‘what do the terms ‘being old’ and ‘being young’ mean to you?’ brought some surprises, with the children being shocked to discover that the 71-95 year old group considered ages 50-70 as young.

The two groups together for the first time after weeks of video conferencing which showed the benefits of technology to promote learning for young and old. PHOTOS: Alphonsus Fok

Principal Michael Hopley said he thought the program was “just fabulous”.

“Children are always looking things up on Google but this got them seeking information in different ways, improving their talking and listening skills and extracting information that way,” he said. “There were layers of outcomes for them, including that they learnt a lot of history and a lot of new language.”

Sarah Bates, 12, said she enjoyed interacting with the residents.

“They often have no one to talk to and it is very silent in the nursing home,” she said. “I liked asking them questions about their past.”

Marcus Khoury, 11, said he is looking forward to the program continuing through Term 4. “We learnt about how their mood was changing and they were happier after interacting with us,” he said.

After four weeks the two groups finally met face-to-face at a morning tea at Our Lady Queen of Peace hosted by parish priest Father Paul Marshall in the church hall.

Resident Norm Hillier, aged 95, said that the meeting “made all the difference”.

“We’ve got to know them through talking to them weekly, and now they have lost their shyness,” he said. “It has been really wonderful and I’m hopeful it will continue. While they learn from us, we have learnt from them.

“The most important thing I’ve learnt through this is how respectful these young ones are of the elderly. I’m always ready to tell a joke or two and they seem to appreciate that. They can’t do enough for us and their teachers are so nice as well.

“They are the country’s future. If I haven’t got much time left and I can help them along the line I’m happy to do it.”

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