Collective Power: The Intergenerational Project, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust

| Anna Eaton

This year we have been part of the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance’s Collective Power Award which recognises a project or programme in which partnership working has improved the health and wellbeing of individuals or communities using the arts and culture. 

We are big believers in collaborative working and the power of doing things together. We are running a blog series up until Christmas celebrating each of the brilliant projects nominated for the Collective Power Award. People from the heart of each project tell us in their own words what they’ve learnt along the way, what surprised them and what have been their favourite parts.

The sixth in our series is about The Intergenerational Project based at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust in London.

The Intergenerational Project creates joy by linking healthcare, education and the arts. The project brings local school children together with older adult patients to build intergenerational connections through an exciting range of arts and humanities workshops in acute hospital settings. They improve patient wellbeing, reduce loneliness and stigma and their outreach programme teaches children about dementia, communication, infection control and ageing.

We asked the project team and facilitators some questions to learn more. Here are some of their responses:

What has been your favourite thing about the project?

Dr Elizabeth McGeorge, Intergenerational Project Fellow: Seeing the patients, children and staff laugh, have fun and relax. The magic that can happen when you collaborate!

Amy Chang, Wallace Collection Facilitator: I found the project particularly inspiring in terms of partnership working. Working together with a range of hospital staff, coordinators, academics, artists, teachers, and more allowed for the project to overcome so many of the potential barriers for working in the hospital context. 

On a personal note, the sessions have been some of the most lively and joyous workshops I have ever taken part in!

Dr Nicola Abraham, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (seconded to Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust): My favourite part of the project is the continued learning that happens with each workshop. In every session you gain more experience, and learn to adapt, respond and create opportunities for wonder and creativity where patients and children are co-artists in the creation of stories, adventures and sharing knowledge. 

Victoria Ruddock, Dementia Care Team, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, Project Team: The fact the patients engaged and also feedback from family members after receiving and showing them artefacts created in sessions to relatives, demonstrated that we spread how effective this project was for improving their wellbeing in hospital. 

When patients took part, they tended to be more lively in the hospital environment afterwards and much happier as a result of taking part. The patients were also very grateful and excited about having been participants in the Intergen project. One of the patients mentioned that they felt valued through the workshops. 

These are patients coming from nursing homes with little interaction and then coming to hospital and showing them this new innovative way of caring. 

Patients often reported back they enjoyed the sessions because they missed interacting with their own grandchildren. They also saw that they were making a difference to a younger generation and were very thankful for the intergenerational aspect of the project. It was fun and memorable for patients too.

What have you learnt along the way?

Amy Chang, Wallace Collection facilitator: I have learnt first-hand about the huge potential of intergenerational activities to boost wellbeing for older adults though connecting with the stimulating energy of young children. 

It has further strengthened my belief that art can be enjoyed by all ages, and we should not think of anyone as too young or old to access it. 

Children’s responses: I learnt how to take care of older people and what they like to do… I always ask what they’d like to play or how they are feeling or what they want to make.

Sometimes they can’t understand what I say so I write it down. I learnt that because some don’t have good hearing you have to speak quite close then they can hear

Older people are quite smart, they play games, they like children because they might have some themselves.

Dr Nicola Abraham, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (seconded to Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust): I have learnt that it is important to think divergently about how to enable the space to perform in creative ways. By this I’m referring to the day rooms that we used for the workshops, where it was important to work with teams around tables with everyone seated. How to make the tables part of the narrative with hidden objects secured underneath and build in a central object that became the focus of our interactive process drama sessions taught me not to see the space as a limit, but as a space of possibility. The rooms can also be very busy with teachers, observers, clinical staff, and participants so it is important to find ways to bring characters into the space for people to interact with without being physically present. 

Anna Shields & Emily Garsin (Starling Arts Artistic Directors):  Working on the Intergenerational Project taught us so many new ways of bringing groups together and creating engagement, and allowed us to be vulnerable along with our participants to discover astonishing and rewarding experiences together. 

Jo James (Consultant Nurse, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust Project Team): When we started this project, we would tell people about the plans and receive a slightly nervous laugh in response and a remark starting with ’have you thought about…’ . Most staff thought that we would be faced with insurmountable challenges and that it would never get off the ground. 

We did face challenges and some of them felt pretty big, like the time that we could not find any patients to join in, or the time when the one room we could use on one site was closed for refurbishment, but we always found a way round it and carried on. 

Has anything surprised you during the project?

Jo James (Consultant Nurse, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust Project Team): One surprise for me has been the enthusiasm we have had from unexpected quarters, such as the infection control team who have photographs of our events on their office walls. I think this is because it has really touched people’s hearts, the sound of the adults and children laughing together would echo through the wards and have an impact on everyone working there. For me, the intergenerational programme has made hospital fun, the children approach our patients without judgement and with an openness which is joyful for everyone involved.

Alex Hirtzel, (Wallace Collection Facilitator): I think the connection that was formed across the generations even in the short time they had together surprised us all. Particularly now for the children looking back they must remember happy thoughts of being in hospital, and it was not scary, rather surprisingly uplifting. For the older hospital participants, I hope that they look back on that time as part of their healing and a time of touching the world outside hospital. As an artist it brings back to me the importance of a simple open ended non-directed project that gave space as much for the participants as possible. 

Also as an artist it always surprises me how wonderful it is to see children not being afraid to create, something many of the older participants struggled with. This brings me back to the importance of creativity throughout our lives.

Dr Nicola Abraham: I think that with seven nieces I’m aware of the imagination of children, but what really surprised me is the level of imagination that can lead to immediate empathy and connection between patients and students. For example, there was a gentleman who wanted to attend a particular workshop. But he was unsettled beforehand and nervous about whether or not the children would be able to communicate with him through a headset and microphone. But the children were delighted when they saw a microphone and with little prompting lined up eager to sing their names to the patient. I learnt to trust children’s innate ability to read a room, and respond thoughtfully and kindly to patients. Similarly, patients engaged in playfulness in workshops telling funny stories and embracing costume and props in creative ways that made the children join them in moments of laughter.

Photo provided by The Intergenerational Project, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust

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