9 September 2019

“Everyone look...old people,” says a child as he steps off the bus at the start of the smash hit ABC-TV reality TV documentary, Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds. 

This sort of spontaneous and tender honesty is one of the many heart-warming features of this seven-week series, set at RSL Lifecare’s ANZAC Narrabeen Village in Sydney’s northern beaches. 

The series brings together ten pre-schoolers and 11 retirement facility residents in an experiment to see whether children are able to lift the spirits, mobility and overall health of the older generation. You can watch it online here.

The series is based on a British program of the same name. 

Only a couple of weeks in, the series is clearly emerging as a big ratings success, rising from 685,000 nationwide viewers in its first episode to 910,000 in its second episode (making the program one of the top ten most viewed across the country).

Even though it is early in the series, it’s also pretty clear there are some learnings from what’s been screened to date, as outlined below:

1) Value of physical activity 

The series pairs up the littlies and oldies in joint activities. 

Before a physical activity, such as walking around the facility, many of the oldies are quick to make public declarations that they will not be able to take part, because of concerns of a fall or an alleged lack of energy or capacity. 

However, after some gentle persuasion from the children, the residents find themselves on the move and then surprise themselves by actually enjoying it.

A point in case is retired florist Shirley, aged 89, who makes it clear in the second episode she is very reluctant to take part in an outdoor maze game. “Look I really don’t want to do it...I can’t do it” she declares. But after zooming around the maze in her zimmer frame with friend Tyrone, Shirley is surprised to see she’s the third fastest to complete the course.

“We came third…that’s something isn’t it,” Shirley exlaims afterwards.

The series illustrates that many of the declarations of physical incompetence made by elderly residents are in fact more like excuses.

Getting the residents up and active is vital, given the evidence presented in the series that leading a sedentary, non-active lifestyle becomes a vicious circle which simply leads to poor muscle strength, loneliness and a depressed mood.

2) Loneliness is a real issue in our society

If the children are spontaneous with their joy, the adults can be spontaneous with their misery.

“I am on my own...I don’t like it very much. I am very lonely,” says Shirley at the beginning of the series.

“I don’t have any hobbies, don’t have the energy,” says Eric.

“I am not interested in having a purpose. Everyone thinks they should do everything to keep us alive...we are here to die...and the sooner the better,” says Brian, the gloomiest of all.

Loneliness is a huge part of this depressed attitude to life. 

As the series points out, 40 per cent of residents in aged care receive no visitors and spend up to 20 hours of the day in their room. This is clearly not sustainable and conducive for a good life.

The series illustrates the potential for mental stimulation and improved mood, simply by bringing generations together.

3) We’ve lost the art of families looking after older generations

I remember, as a young child, living with my very elderly grandmother, in the later stages of her life. I won’t say it was the most enjoyable experience, but it’s what you did as a family.

However, there now seems to be many barriers to three generations of families living together, with the younger generations helping to look after older generation. 

Given the population shift towards the crowded city, more people are living in apartments which have less living space for elderly parents. 

Meanwhile, simply housing an elderly parent in a granny flat can lead to all manner of unwanted tax and social security complications (an issue that the Australian Government has asked the Board of Taxation to sort out).

Finally, a 2012 survey by the Australian Institute of Family Studies found that 20 per cent of adult children either disagreed or strongly agreed with their parents staying with them. A further 32 per cent were undecided.

Yet this series shows the clear benefits of bringing children and older people together - and the family environment is one way this can be done.

4) We can never stop innovating in retirement living

The early impressive results of this experiment show that we can never stop innovating in retirement living and aged care.

Just because things have been done a certain way for decades, doesn’t mean they should be done the same way for decades to come. This could include segregating older people away from the rest of society.

The series shows potential exciting new ways of delivering retirement living and care. 

Already, one Queensland city has just set up an inter-generational play group, thanks to the British TV series.

Meanwhile, in Wollongong, Lendlease and the University of Wollongong are looking at setting up Australia’s first intergenerational university community. 

Stage 1 of the Precinct will include a primary and community health clinic, seniors living apartments, residential aged care facility and early childhood education care centre.

As University of Sydney Professor Susan Kurrle says in the series: “We need to find better ways of looking after old people and find ways to integrate them back into society. Inter-generational care programs have run successfully overseas...but never in Australia.”

5) This is what reality TV looks like

Let’s be honest - nearly all reality TV these days is complete bunkum.

If it’s not wall-to-wall product placements in The Block, then it’s deranged Instagram wannabees in the Bachelor or people prostituting the sacred bonds of marriage in Married At First Sight. 

This series is what reality TV should look like. Genuine, heart-warming and helpful.

You find yourself cheering as Maureen finally gets on her feet to paint, or as near-blind Brian helps a child to open a jar, or as Eric trundles along while his four-year-old chatterbox friend Aiden chortles “keep walking!”.

By Mark Skelsey, Editor at Downsizing.com.au