Home | Practical Living | The school inside an aged care home: Adelaide launches an Australia-first in intergenerational learning
Photo: Kalyra Communities
Photo: Kalyra Communities/Adelaide Now

The school inside an aged care home: Adelaide launches an Australia-first in intergenerational learning

Two years ago, the Kalyra Woodcroft aged care facility in Adelaide was giving another one of its regular site tours. Neither the guide, Terry Wilby, Kalyra’s Director of Care, nor the people being led through the grounds had any idea that this tour was in any way unique. But through sheer serendipity, it would end up bringing two very different institutions into remarkable partnership, and even make history in Australia.

“It just so happened that on this day there were a brother and sister with their mother and father, who were simply looking around,” recounts Terry. “We were about to commence our $25 million building program, and I’d just explained to them what we were planning to do.”

In a subsequent email, the daughter, Ms Roslyn Sim, revealed herself to be on the board of the nearby Southern Montessori School, just eleven minutes drive east. She put forward a tentative proposal, admitting it might sound preposterous.

The school, she explained, was struggling with a problem that was proving rather difficult to overcome. Student numbers had swelled through enrolments, particularly since they’d expanded to years eight and nine in 2014. Overcrowding had become so dire, middle school students were taking classes in a community shed. It was supposed to be a temporary solution; yet the hunt for a permanent relocation site had begun a decade ago. They were running out of options.

Could Kalyra, Roslyn hedged, be the solution they were seeking? 

Terry put the proposal to his CEO, who took it to the board, who got very excited – and the idea took off. “All from a visit,” Terry says, still somewhat amazed.

After a long journey of community consultation (with notable pockets of resistance), council approval, collaborative board discussions, architectural design planning, and at last, construction, Australia’s first co-built educational and aged care facility opened in May. And, to the tune of $1.25 million, a groundbreaking intergenerational program kicked off.

It’s early days, but both institutions are teeming with ideas about how the two groups can connect. Plans are being made for small groups of residents to join classes with students to learn arts and crafts, music and languages. On occasion, the students will transform into performance ensembles, providing background music to residents during the day, with the Kalyra activity room used for plays and recitals. Mentorship will be multidirectional through activities and conversations: students helping residents unlock newfangled modern technologies, and residents imparting invaluable life experiences and knowledge.

Noel Browne, principal at Southern Montessori, radiates immense pride in his school’s new partnership. Viewing age segregation as an increasing social ill, he is convinced intergenerational programs are instrumental in building meaningful bridges between generations.

“This can only lead to a more balanced and well-functioning society,” he says. 

The school opening ceremony. Photo: Kalyra Communities

The school and aged care home are designated as two separate sites, with all visits between to be structured and supervised by trained staff. To ensure safety at all times, a comprehensive orientation and induction program is being rolled out. Students, says Browne, will not be interacting with residents from the dementia ward. 

The middle school integration is part of a monumental redevelopment by Kalyra Woodcroft, purposed to re-envisage the whole idea of what an aged care home can be. Rather than a last-stop terminus – a clinical, moribund environment, kept apart from the rest of society – Kalyra will become a haven of vitality, where residents can feel connected to their community and maintain continuity with their previous lives. In what’s to be known as the ‘Hub’, they’ll be able to access physiotherapy, spa and therapeutic massage, book their own hairdressing appointments and GP visits, head to the gym, and independently plan their days around a range of other community-led services. In all, there is the possibility of students to take part.

Forecast to conclude late this year, the redevelopment also includes a new state of the art cafe. Montessori students happen to be trained baristas under their school’s unconventional curriculum, and will be at the coffee station whipping up residents’ choice of brew.

Much to the residents’ mouthwatering anticipation, there’ll be a change in dining as well. 

“Nursing home food has always been terrible,” admits Terry. In partnership with the Maggie Beer Foundation, which aims to improve food experiences for older people, the students will be getting out to the vegetable patches and into the kitchens, cooking up a range of more palatable and diverse fare. Side by side, with green thumbs and floury fingers, will be the older folk, sharing secrets from how to bake the fluffiest scone to how best to seed a spinach in the garden soil.

There’s even plans for students to work with the ‘Men’s Group’ to build a pizza oven in the coming months.

“The possibilities are endless,” says Browne. “Who knows how many creative and exciting ideas will evolve over time?”

Intergenerational education programs are increasingly popular worldwide, with research furnishing a slew of economic and social benefits. In the US, there’s a preschool inside a nursing home in Seattle, and an intergenerational summer theatre camp in South Dakota, putting on shows of Treasure Island and Aladdin. In the UK, similar initiatives abound, from hiking groups to computer learning classes to high school students helping the elderly write their memoirs

Many programs take their cue from the ‘Dutch model’ of neighbourhood care. Known locally as ‘Buurtzorg’, it is potentially saving millions by enabling older citizens to live more independently with less formal support. The model encourages innovative and entrepreneurial care approaches to take seed; in one notable example, a Dutch nursing home invites university students to live rent free, all in exchange for neighbourly good will.

Stage 2 of the Woodcroft Redevelopment Project. Photo: Kalyra Communities

The potential health, social and psychological benefits of such programs are noteworthy. A dual study by Linda Fried found that seniors who interacted with young people were quicker mentally and on their feet, experiencing enhanced executive function and fewer falls. Regular involvement between the old and young can also combat the scourge of loneliness in older people, which is linked to mental decline and an alarmingly greater risk of mortality. A Japanese study found that socialisation across generations increases smiling and conversation. 

While less work has been done on the benefits for children, at least one study suggests that kids who are around older people are less likely to buy into ageist stereotypes characterising the elderly as incompetent.

The Kalyra/Montessori program will supplement this evidence base, with a partner research project led by Flinders University to commence in October. Under the name Intergenerational Rhythms of Care, the research will explore the relocation’s impact from the perspectives of residents, students, organisational staff and family members, while identifying opportunities, enablers and barriers to intergenerational exchange.

“The aim of the research will be to measure the quality of life of the residents and the psychosocial and cultural outcomes of the co-location on both the residents and the students,” says Terry. “We expect both to experience benefits.”

There is nothing new about intergenerational learning, it must be said. Indigenous Australia has an ancient and continuing reverence for traditional elders as guardians and transmitters of cultural wisdom. In white, postcolonial Australia, however, intergenerational programs haven’t been so quick to take off. 

The trend is on the rise, however. Griffith University is trialling a two-model project (visiting versus shared campus) between the elderly and the young, and Playgroup SA has established 14 intergenerational playgroups across the state. 

Then, you have such wondrously imaginative initiatives as this joined lip sync to Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ with FCJ College and Cooinda Benalla Aged Care.

With the burgeoning ageing population, the consumer appetite for shared campuses is certainly there. Kalyra has simply been the first to officially meet it.

In many ways, the Montessori school and Kalyra are a perfect match. Each seeks to cultivate a community based on the principle of respect and individual autonomy, where people acquire skills through exercising decision-making in a range of real-world environments.

‘Practical Life’ is in fact one of Southern Montessori’s five general curriculum areas. Students partake in purposeful activities with various members of society, learning to behave with respect, grace and integrity. The approach aims to help students acquire a sense of their place in the world, while developing civic responsibility and community consciousness. 

“The intergenerational program provides a context for this to evolve,” explains Browne. “Southern Montessori already combines year levels in cycles where students can learn from older peers. This is the same concept of the cycles that we use, but on a much broader scale, the “cycle of life’.”

Beyond moving out of their community shed into a state-of-the-art, three-classroom school, the students are excited to commence their new learning journey. 

“I want to learn things that we don’t know because they have had different life experiences to the people that I spend most of my time with, even more so than my teachers,” says one Southern Montessori student.

“It’ll be cool to know what they’ve done in their lives and they can teach us something,” adds another. “It will give them a chance to tell somebody what they’ve done in their lives and how that’s benefited others.”

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