A care home in Kent is educating children about the effects of ageing by bringing them face to face with people with dementia.
The children have been visiting Tunbridge Wells Care Centre, where a third of the residents have dementia. They are given a talk on the process of ageing and a tour of the dementia unit.
"We were concerned that the children may see something that may alarm them, but it is a continuation of work we do with a disability charity to ensure they do not build up preconceived ideas about people. The children are learning about the changes people go through as they get older," says Mel Shackleton, headteacher at St James' Infant School in Tunbridge Wells.
The project developed out of a topic that the school was doing on the human body.
Bill Blackford, activity training manager at Tunbridge Wells Care Centre, whose daughter attends St James' Infant School, says: "The school was studying the body as part of the curriculum, so I asked them if they would like to come to the centre so that the children could see what happens to the body as we grow old. The first visit was very successful, so we have continued to run the workshops."
The visits follow a set format, with a talk on the effects of ageing and factsheets and worksheets for the children to complete.
"I explain that older people often have problems with their memories. I tell them our brain stores memories like a filing cabinet and our oldest memories are stored in the bottom drawer and the most recent in the top drawer, but people with Alzheimer's have trouble pulling out the top drawer. I also explain why we use a lot of yellow, as with visual impairment this is the last colour to go," says Blackford.
The children do a craft activity, such as making friendship bracelets, and go on a tour of the dementia unit, where the doors are in different designs and painted different colours to help residents to orientate themselves.
More than 200 children visited the care home last year and it is hoped there will be the same number of children taking part in the scheme this year.
Tips from the scheme
It is vital to have the support of the head of the school and the manager of the home.
There needs to be a good working relationship between the school and the care home and it is important to talk to the care home about how to prepare the children for what they will experience at the home.
Some school staff may find it difficult because their parents may be in similar situations, so check that staff are happy to visit the home.
Have a focus for the visit and link it to a topic at school.
Evidence that it works
The project has benefited the whole school, according to its headteacher.
"For many of the children, it has been the first time they have met and talked to older people, as their grandparents tend to be my age. It is a very practical way of educating children," Shackleton says.
"We have an increasingly ageing population and it is important to value the elderly. I myself found it emotionally very moving when we visited the home. It is good for the children, as they have realised these elderly people were young like them once, and had hopes and dreams like them. Visiting the care home has given the children an acceptance of older people and enabled them to see things from their perspective."
Blackford will continue to run workshops with St James' Infant School and eventually wants to extend the project to involve other schools in the area.
Approach: Children come face to face with the reality of dementia by visiting a care home and meeting the residents
Started: June 2011
Led by: Bill Blackford, activity training manager of Tunbridge Wells Care Centre
Name: St James' Infant School
Type: Church of England
Age range: 4-7
Ofsted overall rating: Outstanding (2008).