It all started with paper planes

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Travelling in the Comlink Australia bus to the local early education centre for the first time to spend some time with the kindergarten kids, Joan was nervous. She hadn’t spent any real time with young children since having her own some 60 years ago. She was afraid she wouldn’t know how to talk to children now; so much had changed and Joan didn’t know the first thing about iPads or the latest television shows!

Upon arrival Joan sat shyly down at the big craft table in the centre courtyard. She was promptly joined by a quiet young boy who mumbled that his name was Oscar. The two sat awkwardly side-by-side sharing a box of colouring crayons between them. A long-faded memory surfaced in Joan’s mind. Inspired, she picked up the paper she had been colouring and started folding. Beside her, Joan noticed that Oscar was watching intently, a look of confusion on his curious little face. When she had finished, Joan flicked the paper plane watching it soar above the table and beyond, landing softly on the adjoining grass. Oscar beamed, glancing from Joan to the motionless plane. He pounced from his chair and bolted across to retrieve the simple aircraft. For the remainder of their visit Joan and Oscar built, coloured, and flew planes between them. Joan almost didn’t realise she was moving around freely without the assistance of her walking aid as she applauded Oscar’s ever-improving aeronautical skills. Like the joyful little planes themselves, Joan felt light and carefree for the first time in years. This was just the beginning…

Whoever said that there is no magic pill to slow down ageing had not been introduced to the wonders of intergenerational exchange! Indeed, research shows that regular intergenerational interactions can support all three of the key elements to healthy ageing that are proposed by research. Specifically, maintaining physical health and wellbeing, maintaining mental functioning and activity, and having meaningful social relationships.

Studies have found that intergenerational programs, particularly intergenerational play programs involving young children and older people, can improve self-reported physical health and functional ability. Additionally, they can decrease reliance on walking aides and decrease falls risk, and reduce stress. Similarly, meaningful interpersonal engagement with younger people within the context of intergenerational programs has also been shown to significantly reduce depression and negative self-perceptions, enhance self-worth, and improve memory while also providing positive mental stimulation.

Not only have these benefits been shown to last for up to 6 months following intergenerational engagement, but recent evidence suggests that regaining social engagement can have lasting impacts on brain functioning. Neuroscientific research shows that prolonged social isolation affects the neuronal pathways responsible for memory and interpersonal skills, however these molecular changes can be reversed through meaningful resocialisation. That is, our brains can bounce back from disconnection when we engage with activities that make us feel valued, such as those that promote social solidarity (two-way giving and receiving between individuals). It may be as simple as sharing how to make a paper aeroplane with a child who reminds you how to play, but the benefits to your wellbeing will likely change your whole world.

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