A clinical trial in Neutral Bay connecting seniors with preschoolers is helping young and old. Tamara Spray reports

Finding ways to curb the burden of caring for Australia’s ageing population on an already stretched health care system is an on-going issue. The ageing population is set to boom, with the number of Australians 65 and over projected to nearly double by 2042, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Now there is a clinical trial taking place at Neutral Bay Preschool aiming to keep older Australians socially connected and active. The Integrity trial is run by researchers from The George Institute for Global Health, in association with the University of NSW (UNSW).

Preschoolers and adults meet for two hours, once a week, to follow a fun, simple program. It’s hoped the activities will help the senior participants maintain physical and cognitive health, preventing frailty.

Programs like this are not new. The well-loved ABC television series, Old People’s Home for 4-year-olds, featured a similar social experiment when it aired in 2019. But while anecdotally the program is of benefit, there is limited evidence to prove the intergenerational program works, says Mae Lim, trial manager and research fellow of the Integrity study.

The clinical trial challenges grandfriends and preschoolers

“This is a well-designed, proper clinical trial,” Mae says of Integrity. “We wanted to use this big trial to really show that intergenerational programs planned in a structured way can bring benefits to children and the older adults.

“We want to provide that quantitative, numerical evidence that is still lacking.”

Mae explains that socially isolated older people tend to move less, and limited physical activity can lead to a higher risk of frailty. “And that will increase their chance of getting into nursing homes,” Mae says.

The 20-week trial is underway at some pre-schools across NSW, including Neutral Bay Preschool.

Northbridge grandmother Bernadette Ramsey, 69, is a participant. “I really love playing with little kids,” she says.

Bernadette says the program has brought her ‘unexpected joy’. “I had two boys just walk into the room and sit right down next to me,” she says of her instant connection. “It’s beautiful.”

A research team of 14 with expertise in ageing, dementia, cognition and exercise physiology are involved. There is also a childhood psychologist and preschool educators behind the scenes.

“I wasn’t expecting to relax and have as much fun as I do.” Bernadette Ramsay

“We potentially see our intergenerational program as a vehicle where we could bring together many positive health benefits for these adults,” Mae says.

“So there are elements of physical activity, social activities and thinking skills that really challenge the adults during the games they play with the children.

“Hopefully through these 20 weeks we keep them active both mentally and physically. And that will translate to preventing them from becoming frail.”

Keeping our senior population active could potentially benefit society long term, with the ageing population and rising demand for care and support services expected to be two of the five major forces to shape the nation’s economy over the coming decades, according to the Australian Government’s Intergenerational Report 2023.

While the results of the clinical trial are yet to be seen, a pilot study, INTERACTION, completed at St Nics’ Christian Preschool in Coogee in 2022, found benefits for young and old.

“For the children, we are interested in looking at improving their developmental skills,” says Mae. “It’s really to target things such as their language, helping to improve their social connection skills and empathy skills.” The program aligns with the national preschool Early Years Learning Framework.

Laura Rivera, director of Neutral Bay Preschool, volunteered at the St Nic’s Preschool trial, and found the experience to be ‘so beautifully enriching for both sides’.

Laura agreed to have a 10-week feasibility trial run at her preschool, which took place in 2022. “We found that so many of our families were international families, and something that was lacking in our community was grandparents,” Laura says.

A call was put out in the local community, seeking adults aged over 65 who could meet standard physical and medical requirements for the trial. Ten adults were selected, together with 10 children from the preschool.

Laura found that initially, the children quickly paired with their ‘grandfriends,’ fast forming friendships. “Three weeks in they were claiming which grandparent was ‘theirs.’” she says. “And very much letting other people know!”

Each week the two-hour lesson would feature cognitive, gross motor and physical skill activities around a theme, like ‘adventure’. Together participants completed craft, created stories and danced – taking turns to help each other. “Having that mutual balance of being needed by each other helped to solidify the bonds they were making,” Laura says.

“We couldn’t deny how much they were getting from it. It was such an extraordinary season of friendship building.”

The preschool is now participating in the clinical trial, with a new group of grandfriends and children.

Laura Rivera says a previous trial was ‘beautifully enriching’

Before and after the trial, adults are tested on their thinking skills and undergo physical assessments for balance, strength and walking speed. They also answer questions about their mood, social connection and quality of life.

The children’s vocabulary skills are also tested, and their parents surveyed to note behavioural changes.

The testing component was one aspect which attracted ‘grandfriend’ Bernadette to the trial. “(I wanted) to challenge myself to go through the testing program. While I’m not disabled at all and I don’t think my memory is terrible, I thought it would be interesting from that perspective.”

So far Bernadette has enjoyed sharing ‘news’ and activities with the preschoolers. “I wasn’t expecting to relax and have as much fun as I do,” she says. She has found the program mentally stimulating, giving her ‘another level of interest’.

“I’m more aware of trying to remember things,” she says. “I’ve really enjoyed the challenge of doing something new. It’s great to keep pushing the boundaries as far as I’m concerned.”

The study is currently recruiting adult volunteers. For more information, visit linktr.ee/integritytrial