You make me feel so young

Emma Cook on the nursing home that opened its doors to children
Click to follow
The Independent Online
There is something disconcerting about walking into a nursing home and hearing the sound of children's chatter and laughter emanating from nearby rooms. Somehow, youthful energy is not what you expect to find in a place for the elderly. But then Emily Jackson House, in Sevenoaks, Kent, is a highly unexpected development, mainly due to the singular vision of its matron, Roz Ward.

Two years ago, she hit on the idea of integrating old and young people within the same building. Mrs Ward succeeded last year with the opening of a private Montessori nursery school for 24 children on the second floor of the home, which offers a mix of NHS and private beds.

Now the two age groups co-exist happily, sharing music and motion lessons and visiting each other regularly. There are further plans to share art and exercise classes. The project has been such a success that Westminster Health Care, which runs 120 nursing homes, hopes to introduce Mrs Ward's idea into another half dozen by June next year.

Full of energy and zeal, Mrs Ward, 48, has always seen the benefits of placing the old and young in close proximity. "Their needs are so similar," she enthuses. "I've always been in contact with old and young people as a trained nurse and health visitor - I've noticed a real empathy between the two. The old are happy to sit and listen. The young are unconcerned about handicaps and disabilities."

There are also some practical advantages: "The nutritional needs are very similar," she says. "The old eat small colourful meals which are very nutritious; children eat exactly the same." Then there are the emotional advantages. As social mobility increases, so does the chasm between generations. Children are far less likely to come into contact with grandparents than 20 years ago. But here, relationships akin to grandparent and grandchild can be nurtured. "When older people first arrive, they think that's the end of their useful life. Some of them, though, adopt the granny role and it gives them a purpose," she says. "There's a wonderful link for them."

Despite the clear logic behind Mrs Ward's concept, it still took a year to convince the authorities. "I had to go through so many departments. Probably the stickiest was the area health authority. They thought, 'Gosh, you can't mix children and old people.'" Why does she think they were so cautious? "They said I was setting a precedent, so they wanted to make sure it was done properly. I think it was fear, too - people tend to pigeonhole other people. They think, nursing homes are for the elderly and that's that."

After 21 official visits from various departments, she convinced them otherwise. A year later, the primary school is extremely popular with parents. "They are queueing up," says Mrs Ward. "There is a waiting list as long as your arm."

Kent Thippen, chief operating officer for Westminster Health Care, admits he had initial reservations. "I did think it was very strange," he says. "I couldn't see how it would fit together." But now he realises the prescience of Mrs Ward's plan. "We've always noticed when nursing homes are built near to schools, the residents do better," he says.

Laura Hubble, day nursery manager, agrees. "Even if residents don't have direct contact, they can watch them. Also, children often go running into their rooms and chatter to them." That could be why there seems to be an absence of listless, blank faces glued to television screens. Instead, young children help residents with jigsaw puzzles in the day room, which overlooks the playground. Upstairs, Rose Bresnahan, 70, is playing plastic dinosaurs with Ben, two, Patrick, three, and Alane, two.

Earlier this year, Rose suffered a stroke, but she can climb the steps to the nursery twice a week. "When you get old, you get so frightened you're going to lose touch with what's going on in the world," says Rose. "But you've got to go forward - the little ones fill that gap."

Ward believes these bonds may contribute to residents' longevity. "We're dealing with a lot of people who are 90 plus. Yet we've only had one death since June - usually we have more," she says. "Is it because they're contented, so they haven't turned their faces to the wall?"

Certainly, it provides a stimulating environment where two generations learn from each other. As Rose says: "You learn to listen to what the children say. You've got more patience and time. When you're so busy bringing up a family, you forget about the main thing - contact and communication." Here she appears to enjoy both.