Education: There's nothing like old friends: Bringing children and the elderly together can close the culture and generation gap, says Fran Abrams

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The Independent Online
As Karim Sherif gazes up at him, holding both his hands, Michael Murphy's mouth twists into a delighted smile and his eyes light up. The 73-year-old is almost beyond speech, but he has little difficulty in communicating with this nine-year-old boy.

Mr Murphy and Karim are neighbours, but their worlds are separated by the generation gap and a culture gap.

Mr Murphy's fellow residents at Sydney House, a home for the elderly in Stepney, grew up in the East End of London long before the Bengali community began to settle there.

Karim's classmates at the nearby Ben Jonson Primary School have little contact with old people because many of their grandparents live thousands of miles away.

Now these two groups of people have come together in a project designed to educate both by uniting them through music and drama. For the past six months, 15 children from Ben Jonson school have visited the home every week along with Gerri Drought, a violinist from the City of London Sinfonia, and Sue Rickards, a project worker from a local charity called Magic Me.

Magic Me aims to bring together young and old people in a variety of ways, and the Sydney House project has been one of its most successful efforts.

Each week Ms Drought and Ms Rickards have used music and drama to take their charges on an imaginary journey to a different part of the world. Familiar songs such as 'Land of Hope and Glory' and 'Who wants to be a millionaire?' are interspersed with interludes in which the children go round and shake hands with all the residents.

Afterwards, back at school, the pupils are given a chance to talk about the experience. This is important because many of the elderly people are deeply confused as well as suffering from physical disabilities, and on occasion they can even be aggressive towards the children.

The beauty of the scheme, its organisers say, is that the children and old people believe they are taking part in order to help others. Even better, they both are.

In the past, Gerri Drought said, such schemes had failed to work because of the mutual suspicion and even fear the children and old people had of each another. This time, through careful preparation and follow-up, barriers have been broken down and real friendships forged.

Everyone concerned says that the children and residents have benefited immeasurably from their sessions together. Old people who showed little enthusiasm for any other aspect of their lives regularly arrived in the lounge an hour and a half before the pupils did, and cries of 'Where's me children?' were heard when they did not come one week.

One old lady with Parkinson's disease, who rarely spoke or even moved, pushed a cushion off her knee one day for a child to sit on.

Sue Rickards, watching the children saying goodbye to their friends at the end of the final session, said: 'If you popped back into this room this time tomorrow, you would find people dozing in their chairs, but they come down at 9.30 to be ready for us at 11. One week when the children couldn't come some of them were nearly in tears,' she said.

The children have also gained a great deal from the time they have spent at Sydney House. Their teacher, Grace Fisher, said their perceptions of old people had changed dramatically.

The children were hand picked because staff at the school felt they would benefit, some because they did not know their grandparents, some because they came from one-parent families and might benefit from making new friends, and one or two because they had a disabled brother or sister and needed to learn to accept other people's disabilities. One or two, Miss Fisher said, were simply bright sparks who would bring pleasure to the residents.

'Initially, they were a little nervous, but over the weeks they have more or less become confident with each other, and they have also become confident with themselves,' she said.

Patsy O'Dwyer, the day services manager at the home, said the residents rarely saw young people and never had a chance to meet a group and get to know them in this way.

'I cannot overestimate the amount of energy and interest this project has created for our residents,' she said.

But perhaps the greatest success of the scheme involved an 83-year-old schizophrenic. When she told one of the children in no uncertain terms to 'Go away]' her outburst was regarded not as a disaster but as a triumph. She had just spoken her first words in more than two years.

(Photograph omitted)