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Children’s visits bring happy days to nursing home

A care home finds that inviting children from the nursery next door to join residents with dementia in activities such as cooking and dancing benefits everyone

A care home finds that inviting children from the nursery next door to join residents with dementia in activities such as cooking and dancing benefits everyone


Picture: John Houlihan

‘We’re really excited about the work we’re doing and it’s given us all a boost,’ says registered general nurse Lucy Dawson, who is helping to lead an intergenerational engagement project at Wren Hall, a 53-bed independent care home in Nottingham.

Wren Hall specialises in looking after people with dementia who often have other co-morbidities. ‘We don’t just want to look after the physical needs of the people we care for, but the social aspects too – the small things that matter to them and make every day a little bit brighter.’

Lucy_Dawson
Lucy Dawson: 'They are building
therapeutic relationships.’ 
Picture: John Houlihan

This spring, Wren Hall joined the Teaching Care Homes Programme, facilitated by a partnership between Care England and the Foundation of Nursing Studies and funded by the Burdett Trust for Nursing (see box).

Quality of life

‘We’re always looking for ways to improve our practice and add quality to the lives of our residents,’ says Ms Dawson, who began working at the home 18 years ago as a care assistant and qualified as a nurse almost 11 years ago.

‘I love my job and I wouldn’t work anywhere else,’ she says. ‘No two days are the same, as we have people with a multitude of different conditions that we look after, alongside mental health needs. It may sound cheesy, but we’re one big family.’

After hearing about the programme, she felt they had a lot to offer, including sharing good practice. ‘The home has very knowledgeable care staff, with a well-established team of about ten registered nurses, who keep up to date with the latest developments,’ says Ms Dawson.

‘The residents are nurturing towards the children, but equally the children are looking after them too, so they’re helping each other’

Lucy Dawson

Their work has been independently recognised, with an ‘outstanding’ rating by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) in a report published in May 2017. Among the highlights were what it called the ‘exceptionally kind, positive and compassionate relationships’ developed by staff with the residents.

‘People’s care was individualised, staff put them first and knew them really well,’ the report said.

As part of their project, Ms Dawson was keen to explore engagement with young people, and the opening of a new nursery on the same site in February provided the perfect opportunity to bring children and residents together. For their first activity, the children at Little Wrens, who are aged up to six, were invited to learn cooking skills with the residents, such as making a mackerel pasta salad.

Opportunities to mix

‘The response was exceptional,’ says Ms Dawson. ‘The residents were smiling and reminiscing, giving the children really in-depth explanations. They encouraged the children to smell and taste the food, appreciating the different textures.

‘They used their motor skills too, to help cut up ingredients. At one point, one of the little boys held a lemon to a resident’s nose, so he could smell it. Then the little boy tasted it and immediately pulled a face, which made all the residents howl with laughter.’

The first event was so successful that the home is now providing regular opportunities to mix, with a couple of events each week. For example, in April they celebrated St George’s Day, with everyone wearing red and taking part in various crafts.

‘For the residents, it’s given them happiness and a new lease of life. They are energised by the children’s visits’

Lucy Dawson

In May there is a tea dance, with the children and residents enjoying practising and performing ballroom dancing.

‘As many of our staff have children at the nursery, the Little Wrens are used to popping in and out of the home,’ says Ms Dawson. ‘They also have access to our large garden, so they bump into each other there too. When one of the little boys sees the resident who helped him cook he always high-fives him.’


Picture: John Houlihan

Initial concerns that some of the children would be frightened by residents whose dementia was especially severe have proved to be unfounded. ‘Even if someone is quite vocal, they don’t seem to bat an eyelid,’ says Ms Dawson.

‘The children have been very receptive to all the residents, holding their hands and laughing and giggling with them, but also really listening to what they say. The residents are nurturing towards the children, but equally the children are looking after them too, so they’re helping each other – it’s lovely to watch. They are building therapeutic relationships in a natural and easy way.’

Local communities

At the outset, the home sought consent from parents. ‘We wondered whether everyone would agree, but they’ve all been fine,’ says Ms Dawson. The home also encourages the nursery teachers to become ‘dementia friends’, offering regular training sessions that help to improve everyone’s knowledge.

Although the current arrangement is only for a year, the home is determined to continue such programmes. ‘We want to make sure it stays embedded in what we do, by keeping in touch with local communities,’ explains Ms Dawson.

To that end, they are setting up a pen pal scheme with a local primary school where they have already established links with the children, who visit a couple of times during the year, putting on performances and attending the home’s annual open day.

Sense of well-being

They have also invited the Scouts, Guides and Brownies to help out in Wren Hall’s grounds, which cover two acres, and are offering support with activities that could help the young people towards gaining a Duke of Edinburgh award.

Now the home is looking at formally evaluating the difference this new approach is making to the residents’ quality of life. ‘We’re going to monitor residents’ behaviour and how they are interacting for a couple of hours before the children arrive, and then continue during their visit, to assess how their reactions change,’ explains Ms Dawson.

She believes the initiative has benefited the residents, children and staff. ‘For the residents, it’s given them happiness and a new lease of life. They are energised by the children’s visits and they love seeing them,’ she says. ‘The little ones love it too and in the longer term I think it will help them to accept the ageing process. And for the staff, it’s made things lively and we all have a sense of well-being when we see the reactions.’


Picture: John Houlihan

Aims of the Teaching Care Homes Programme

The Teaching Care Homes Programme, launched in May 2016, aims to develop a network of homes throughout England that demonstrate a range of attributes. These include:

  • A commitment to person-centred care and ways of working
  • Being a centre for learning, practice development and research
  • Building strong working relationships with academic and education providers, and becoming a resource for other care homes
  • Raising the profile of long-term social care as an exciting and rewarding career choice

Following the successful pilot programme that involved five care homes across England, funding has now been agreed to support ten more homes over the next two years, with the first five of these having joined the programme in March 2018. Wren Hall is one of two homes based in Nottingham, with others in Liverpool, Northampton and Solihull.

Applications will be invited for the third cohort this summer or autumn. The goal is that they will become a community of 15 leading care homes that act as beacons or hubs of expertise.


Lynne Pearce is a freelance health journalist

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