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Where age is no bar to friendship

In an award winning project in Dundee, secondary school pupils pay weekly visits to a care home and interact with the residents, who love their cheery company. The project improves understanding between generations and helps dispel myths about care home nursing.

There’s a joyful buzz of chatter coming from the day room of Balhousie Clement Park care home in Dundee. In one corner, teenagers in school uniform are looking through magazines with several of the home’s older residents.

From the sounds of it, none of them thinks too much of the fashions or the celebrities featured, and they make common cause, laughing and pointing at some particularly outrageous images.

There’s a game of dominoes going on, the large, brightly coloured tiles again forging a bond between the older people and their young visitors. In fact, it’s hard to tell who is enjoying it more.

Sweetening the whole process are cups of tea and coffee and piles of jam doughnuts, and most are tucking in.

This scene is repeated most Monday afternoons. It is the result of a volunteering partnership between the care home and one of the city’s secondary schools, Harris Academy.

The initiative, which started in 2014, involves a group of five or six students per week visiting the home and interacting with residents.

Last year, the project was honoured in the Scottish Care Awards which celebrate achievements of care homes, winning in the personalisation and partnership category.

Left and right: Life at Balhousie Clement Park care home in Dundee is enlivened by weekly visits by teenagers from the local Harris Academy school

Picture credit: Mike Wilkinson

It is a project that benefits people living in the home and the young people alike, as well as the staff, who appreciate the extra help to keep residents entertained, says staff nurse Jan Malone (pictured above left).

‘The older people love it,’ she says. ‘They like seeing the kids and they interact really well. It gives them something different to do; it’s a bit of stimulation. We get the same kids coming in, so they get to know the residents. And even people who are usually quiet will get chatty.’

‘It’s a good way to dispel some myths about care homes’

– Cheryl Banks

Kelly McConnachie, housekeeper and activities worker at the home, agrees. ‘There are a couple of people who like to spend a lot of time in their room, but they’ll come out when the kids are here,’ she says. ‘It creates a real buzz.’

As well as games like dominoes, activities include crafts such as mosaics and weaving, reminiscing, and, in warmer weather, gardening. Residents – the oldest is 98 – can dip in or out as they wish.

Recruitment

According to Cheryl Banks, participation partner with the Balhousie Care Group, the project has been so successful that it is now being rolled out in other homes across the group – and it is having an unexpected, but welcome, effect on staff recruitment. ‘It’s a great way of developing intergenerational engagement,’ she says. ‘It’s also a good way of dispelling myths about care homes. This sort of initiative is good for us as employers. Some young people – and older people as well – have the wrong idea about care homes, but the experience of actually coming here shows them that they can be great places to work.’

Indeed, one young pupil who first visited the home as a volunteer liked it so much that she applied for a job there. She was successful, she believes, because staff had already seen her in action. Chloe Walker, 16, says she wouldn’t have thought of working in the care sector previously, but was delighted to have had her eyes opened to the possibilities.

‘It was quite scary at first,’ she admits. ‘But once I got past that, I enjoyed it. I like doing arts and crafts and other activities. And I like talking to older people. You can have good conversations. I also like to feel that I’m making a difference. One resident likes to go for a wander [around 80% have cognitive difficulties including dementia] so I like to be involved in distracting her, getting her to think of something else.’

Chloe, who is employed part-time at the home, hopes to get a full-time job soon, and thinks she might go to college at a later stage to pick up qualifications that will help her develop her career.

Popularity

The volunteer scheme is popular with students, says Harris Academy support for learning teacher Pam Cook. ‘We’ve got a queue at our door of kids wanting to come to the home now. They hear from the others how it’s a good thing to do, and now a lot of them want to do it.’

She explains that the school was able to continue the volunteering project thanks to a grant from Education for All, a commission for developing Scotland’s young workforce. Around 15 students aged 14 to 17 can be involved at any one time.

‘I used to think older people hated teenagers’ Picture credit: Mike Wilkinson

When Dundee teenager Jordan Cord, pictured with staff nurse Jan Malone, was first offered the chance to volunteer at Balhousie Clement Park care home, he admits that he wasn’t that keen on the idea.

Much to his surprise, however, he absolutely loved it – and as a result, has plans to develop a career in nursing.

‘I wasn’t looking forward to it,’ says Jordan, who is now 17. ‘I felt like older people hated young people. I thought that they crossed the road when they saw a group of us coming, and that they judged us. But it’s not been like that at all; it’s been good.’

Jordan, a pupil at Harris Academy, enjoyed visiting the home so much that he now volunteers every week. It is clear that he is hugely popular with the residents, particularly the women. He has a smile for everyone, answers questions good-naturedly, and does whatever is required – whether that’s offering an arm to support someone with impaired mobility, or taking part in some of the many activities organised for residents in the home. But it’s equally obvious that Jordan is benefiting from his volunteering.

‘I like talking to the older people, and listening to them. Some of them had great jobs when they were young. There’s one man who was in the Black Watch [formerly an army regiment, now a battalion that is part of the Royal Regiment of Scotland] and he’s interesting, and there’s another who worked in the mills [Dundee was once famous for its jute mills] and can talk about that. I enjoy hearing about what things were like when they were younger – and they like talking about it, so that’s great.’

Jordan credits his time in the home with his decision to try for a career in nursing. ‘I never would have thought of it before, so this has definitely influenced me,’ he says. ‘I want to do adult nursing, and I think that this will be good experience for me. I’m pleased to be doing it.’

Ms Cook has no doubt that they benefit. ‘It’s given them skills that will be useful in their working lives,’ she says. ‘Some of the young people have additional learning needs, and it’s been great to see them grow in confidence and develop while they’re here. In fact, when you see them interacting with the older people, it’s like they’re different kids.

‘This experience is helping their employability and I believe it’s improving their life chances.’

But what of the residents? Later in the afternoon, when the school volunteers have gone, two residents settle down in the room that now seems curiously quiet. Asked if they like it when the pupils come, one nods emphatically. ‘It makes the place cheery,’ she says, offering round some of the remaining doughnuts. ‘Yes, it makes the place cheery’.

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