It is lunchtime in the bistro at Belong and half a dozen toddlers are tucking into sausage cassoulet, mash and seasonal vegetables. Anyone acquainted with the table manners of two- and three-year-olds may well be bracing themselves for carnage. Yet green beans are being happily pronged with forks rather than chucked on the floor and some faces don’t even need a wipe. To underline this dining miracle: one little girl is wearing a white top that survives a tomato-based sauce.
For this remarkable scene we can thank the calming presence of Bill Wall, who sits in the middle drinking a cappuccino and gently encouraging the children to have a few more mouthfuls. This 87-year-old former electrician has become one of the children’s “grandfriends” – “our Bill”, they call him. Since he moved into the intergenerational community in Chester last year, he spends almost as much time down in the nursery as up in his care home suite.
Wall struggles to talk these days, but he does not need words to communicate with the children. One of his lunch companions is three-year-old Jacob Farrell-Ogunyemi, who is on his third helping of cassoulet. His mum, Maeve Farrell, a teacher, is delighted not just with Jacob’s increasingly adventurous appetite but also the relationships he has formed with Bill and his other grandfriends. Farrell is from Northern Ireland and her partner is from London: “We don’t have any family here. So I was mindful of Jacob missing out on that and how much you can learn from people of different ages.”
Belong Chester claims to be the first older people’s “care setting” in the UK to include a fully integrated children’s research nursery, where children and residents come together every day. It opened last year in a purpose-built, five-storey complex in Chester city centre constructed of handsome red brick. The ground floor bistro and hairdressers are open to the public, with the care home element contained in six 12-person “households” on the upper floors, along with 23 apartments available for older people to rent or buy.
It is bright and cheery, the sort of place you’d choose to have your lunch, even if it wasn’t included in your nursery or nursing home fees. Many residents have dementia, but all have the opportunity to interact with the children on a daily basis, studied by academics from nine universities researching the physical and mental health benefits of intergenerational living.
If the idea is familiar to you, it is probably from the Channel 4 series, Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds. The show took inspiration from the intergenerational communities that started springing up in Japan in the 1970s, and brought together a group of preschoolers and the St Monica Trust retirement community in Bristol. Everybody loved the series, says Sue Egersdorff, co-founder of Ready Generations, the charity that operates Belong’s nursery. But, she says, the multiple series of the show “haven’t done us any great service, because all they do is present all the lovely cutie bits”. TV made it look too easy.
Egersdorff is a little sniffy about rivals who claim to offer intergenerational living, yet only really bring together the generations for special occasions. “Lots of people say they do it, but perhaps the children come once a term, at Easter, Christmas or whenever,” she says. She and her co-founder, Liz Ludden, had both been involved in other intergenerational projects “which just didn’t feel authentic”, says Ludden. They were inevitably short-term: a local council would pay, say, for a six-week project to mix nursery children with care home residents that would leave everyone – young and old – sad and confused when it ended.
Belong is different, insists Egersdorff. Though the children go home to their families every night, “during the day it’s about actually living together. What we found since we opened last year is that the really special things don’t necessarily happen in the planned stuff.” It’s the spontaneous moments “where the magic, the real learning, happens”.
No one who works at Belong wears a uniform, to try to build this community feel. All interactions are closely monitored by care and nursery staff. Residents are asked each day if they would welcome any young visitors and are never alone with the children. Those too unwell to go down to the nursery can send the children a note via a special red postbox in reception.
Alan Hyde and his wife, Diana, both 82, often invite the children to their apartment to see their budgie, Joey. Diana is living with Alzheimer’s, but has “always loved children”, says Alan. “If she’s not having a good day I bring her down to the nursery and it’s as if someone has turned her switch back on. It’s that powerful.”
Loving and caring for someone with dementia can be tough, says Alan. But since moving into Belong, “I’ve got more friends than before. Not long ago I went back to the village where we used to live, to take Diana to the hairdressers, and they said: ‘You’re looking much happier now.’” It works both ways, says Ludden: “The children light up if they see Diana pass.” Earlier this year Diana was in hospital after having a stroke and breaking her arm. Some of the children spotted Alan popping out to Waitrose alone. “They said to me: ‘Alan, where’s Diana?’” he recalls, clearly touched.
Many of the nursery parents think their children have become more caring by mixing with older people. “Some of them use a wheelchair, some have limited speech or communication, and I think it has made Jacob more empathic,” says Farrell. “I’m six months pregnant and I’ve been really ill, and when Jacob has seen me be unwell, he checks on me. I don’t know if that’s normal for a three-year-old, but Belong is definitely teaching the children they have to be a little bit careful around their grandfriends. One of them had a fall and was bruised and Jacob was asking how she was.” Amy Liu says her daughter, Charlotte, aged three, has learned a lot from her grandfriends at nursery. “Charlotte’s language, compared to her peers from our antenatal group, is head and shoulders above. She uses words in the right context and talks in full sentences.”
Not all of the older residents were convinced at first. Among the doubters was Dorothy Hulford, 87, a former university administrator who moved in with her 95-year-old husband, Frank, last year. When I first encounter Dorothy, she is too busy crafting a clay elephant with two-year-old Alfie to even look up. Later, she stops for a chat by reception. “I was sceptical,” she admits. “Indifferent.” But she soon got sucked in, and now spends as much time in the nursery as she can, “happy and flattered” to be accepted by the children. “I’m not one for cuddles,” she says. “But I do enjoy going for a ‘pramble’.”
The word “pramble” was coined by resident Joan, a keen rambler sad she could no longer take to the fells. “We said: ‘Well you can walk with us,’” remembers Ludden. Prambles, where young and old stroll down the canal in a carnival of wheelchairs, walking frames, buggies and prams, are now one of Belong’s most popular intergenerational activities. Invariably leading the procession by proudly pushing a six-seater buggy is Ralph Barnes, 68, who lives in a Belong apartment with his mother, 87-year-old Doreen.
Some might consider these walks risky, says Ludden. “If you said to somebody, would you let someone with dementia push a pram along the canal? Everyone would go: absolutely not. But we would say: absolutely, why not? Because when all the measures are in place, when you’ve got additional staff, when you all know each other and can interconnect, there is absolutely no reason not to.”
Too often older people living in care facilities don’t get these sorts of opportunities, says Belong’s chief executive, Martin Rix. “The underlying philosophy we have here is that we’re trying to enable people to live happy, joyful lives and having the nursery integrated adds a whole new dimension to that.”
The change in some of the older residents is remarkable, says Egersdorff. “We call it unfurling. We see it in some of our older people. When they arrive, they are a bit closed down. Then the children arrive and you can actually see their whole body unfurl.”
June Davis, 83, a former infant school teacher, arrived last year in a wheelchair, shaking with Parkinson’s and confused because of dementia. “She’d broken her hip and had a replacement. We never thought she’d walk again,” says her daughter, Paula.
Now, not only can she get up and down stairs but she can pramble to the nearby park. When I visit, she is reading to a group of three-year-olds in Belong’s library, and she sings in the choir.
Last Christmas, Belong held a screening of Frozen and provided polystyrene snowballs for the residents and children to throw at each other. “The children were helping the older people throw them and I was tearing up because it was just so lovely,” says Farrell.
Interacting with the children is “incredibly important” for the men, thinks Hulford: “That generation weren’t involved with their children, back then, because they were at work. I see how much they enjoy being with the nursery children now.”
When he moved in, Iain Wheelton, an 84-year-old RAF veteran, wasn’t sure he would want to spend time with the children. Now he can often be found racing the toddlers in his wheelchair and letting them press buttons to make it beep. “The integration here, between the sick, elderly people, the infirm, the children, is the full works: we are all here together. This is what life is about,” he says. “I love the children.”
Despite the palpable joy in the air, having a loved one with dementia is extremely painful, says Tracey Crutchley, accompanying her mother, Shirl Heaton, to the choir. “It’s awful. There is nothing worse than dementia. I don’t call her mum, I call her Shirl, because it’s part of the process of being able to let go. And you have to be able to let go because if you don’t, it will kill you.”
Moving her mum to Belong, away from her old friends in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, was a very difficult decision, says Crutchley. “But friends had stopped coming because they didn’t know how to cope with her.”
She knows her 89-year-old mum is lucky to be able to afford the £1,355 it costs each week to stay in one of Belong’s households, having sold her mum’s home to pay for the round-the-clock care for the rest of her days.
Belong accepts local authority-funded placements only if there is a guaranteed top-up from a third party (usually family or friends) to meet the weekly fee. The independent living apartments cost between £209,000 and £270,000 for a one-bed and £286,000 and £396,000 for a two-bed to buy, with weekly rent costing between £826 and £1,541, which includes an emergency 24-hour nurse call service, with care packages available at extra cost.
Everyone we meet is in raptures about Belong, and by the time we say goodbye I know that if I lived in Chester and had a preschool child or parents needing extra care, I’d be camped out on the pavement for a spot. So why aren’t there more places like it? Because it is very labour-intensive and costs a lot, says Egersdorrf. The 25-space nursery currently turns a small profit, charging £59 per child a day – but only because neither she nor Ludden draw salaries and they don’t pay rent to Belong. “I know, we’re mad,” says Egersdorff. “If you were a chain nursery, you wouldn’t look at doing this because it will cost you off your top-line profit.” They hope that by working with the academics they will be able “to prove this is a better way of early years education and older people’s care”.
She would like to take the intergenerational concept further, perhaps offering student accommodation: “This is a university city. Students want cheaper accommodation. I’d say, you can come in with reduced rent, but you’ve got to do 20 hours a week social care.
“I think people are ready for a change,” she says. “Everybody is ready to ask: what are the human values for this century post-Covid? How do we want to live and how do we make more of our local communities?”