In this article, Sue Egersdorff, founder of Ready Generations, a Connection Coalition member, explores the need for human connection, the impact of the pandemic and the charity’s mission to understand the impact of loneliness across all generations and to better understand the most profound motivators of human connection.
Heart by Misuzu Kaneko
Translation by David Jacobson, Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi
My mother is big –
she’s a grown up
but her heart is little.
I’ll tell you why – because
she says her heart is filled with little me!
since I’m a child,
but I have a big heart
I’ll tell you why – because even with my heart
filled with my big mother, there’s still room for so much more
Misuzu Kaneko is Japan’s most celebrated children’s poet. Her poems are an important part of the curriculum in every Japanese elementary school and speak passionately to the need for constellations of connection with each other through acts of simple human kindness and reciprocity. The emphasis, during the Covid-19 pandemic on an enforced return to the simplicity of basic living and a re-evaluation of what is considered as important chimes perfectly with Kaneko’s work. Yet in real time, day after day, we face a stressful dichotomy. We are experiencing a range of situations that have the potential to either humanise or, in stark contrast, dehumanise us. Covering our faces, pulling back from hugging our friends and family, feeling nervous about shared food, awkwardly avoiding contact with strangers, blaming the young and blaming the old. Such situations have raised a new internal consciousness that feels alien to most of us. We appear to have grown distant from each other and at worst, suspicious of each other at a time when we harbour a longing to be connected and close.
Our recently revised daily routines and behaviours have combined to create the perfect storm for a life-altering loss of physical contact and interaction. For some, the natural inclination towards intimacy has been frozen out, replaced by the sharpness of dismissal and avoidance. This can lead to feelings of a blanket disconnection – emotionally, socially and spiritually.
As humans we have evolved into a species that appreciates and places high value on interdependence. Now this feels challenged on a number of fronts. Will we ever sit comfortably next to a stranger on the park bench exchanging casual pleasantries, or share a hug with a work colleague or delight in children holding hands and playing together? How will we respond when such actions are directed towards ourselves? The anxiety associated with a new consideration of the we and us in relationships is increasingly present with the potential to grow into an alien consciousness that goes to the core of who we perceive ourselves to be.
Misuzu Kaneko’s work calls for constellations of connection.
Prior to the current situation, some organisations were considering the power of connection and relational dichotomies. Ready Generations, a charity based in Liverpool was created with the sole aim of encouraging reciprocal connections between children, families and older people, as brought to life through many of Kaneko’s poems. Our work involves developing the right environmental conditions to encourage safe, authentic and sustainable relationships grounded in respect for human dignity at every stage of the life course. Challenging discrimination against individuals and groups on the basis of their age is central to the Charity’s mission and we are currently building a Think MINI Ageism movement advocating for greater civic understanding of the needs of babies and young children as well as older people.
The Charity’s major project is a partnership with Belong Ltd to set up a purpose-built intergenerational nursery in the heart of a new care village in Chester. This is due to open in early 2022, enabling older people, families and young children to mix together informally and also to learn to understand each other more through an innovative Mirrored Curriculum Framework. Many fabulous intergenerational models have focused on an activities together approach with positive results. This project will expand such models and consider the lived experience of a fully integrated approach where living and being together is prioritised in a sustained way and under a shared roof.
The overarching aim of the project is to develop scaleable lived experience approaches to intergenerational connection, where the wisdom of the years meets the eagerness of childhood through a sensitive developmental programme. For example, through the Mirrored Curriculum Framework, children and older people will work together on inter-related tasks that tackle ageist barriers whilst promoting the cognitive abilities of the very young and maintaining the cognitive health of the older generation. This is particularly significant work when considered against a national demographic that shows an increasing prevalence of such debilitating chronic conditions as dementia and other degenerative cognitive conditions in the over 65 population and an increasing use of dismissive images and language around older people and children.
As a Charity, we are uncompromising in our mission to seek out and better understand the most profound motivators of human connection. Charity founder, Sue Egersdorff, says:
as humans we are wired to be social and to seek the proximity of others, both family and friends. Very few of us are able to do well or function at our best when we feel isolated and alone. The pain of social loss and connection can be devastating. The brain responds in the same way it would if the pain was a physical one. This is becoming so apparent for many as they have been separated from their families in this pandemic.
To bring life to our plans, we have also developed an Attuned Relationships Model (ARM) focussed on ensuring all developments respond to the basic human needs we all share whatever our age. These are, to secure safety, comfort, proximity to those who love and help us and an intuitive desire to look for predictability in things and feel in control. When faced with perceived chaos or uncertainty we try our best to make sense and secure meaning for ourselves. In turn, this helps to provide us with a sense of positive self-definition – we feel in control whether we actually are or not, we feel safe and we have some sense of what the future holds and how we should respond and expect others to respond to us in return. These needs have been deeply challenged for many as the pandemic has progressed and will require much post-pandemic recovery support and understanding.
Over the last two years, our work with nurseries, schools and care providers has placed us in a good position to help in any way we can to support such recovery efforts. Our research, through our recent Care to the Nest Report has highlighted the concern that staying connected with your own peer group alone can be self-limiting. It can encourage myths to form about what other generations may be like, increasingly fuelled by hearsay and social media. Stereotypical and often ageist views about the ways in which generations engage with their environment and each other can quickly become entrenched and embedded. Young children can appear supremely physically active, needing constant adult supervision, whilst older people are often described as sedentary onlookers onto the action. Young people can appear selfish, rowdy and threatening, whilst older people can seem slow and distant with outdated views and prejudices. We think ageist representations are to be guarded against at every stage of the life course.
As human beings we all participate in the world through our environment and form perspectives through the interactions our particular environment offers us. We believe environments are hugely significant and can become enablers or barriers to engagement. For a lucky minority, the pandemic has brought people together in ways that could never have been imagined at the start of 2020. Neighbourhoods have grown together with people noticing the existence of each other and building new locally focussed friendships and alliances. At its best, this noticing is gradually developing into knowledge and experience about how to live alongside each other in, what could best be described as an interconnected ecosystem reflecting a refreshed sense of the collaborative community.
However, in reverse there is a bleaker side, a side which continues to fail badly in noticing the plight of the most vulnerable. Many people, often the most helpless, have died at home alone during the pandemic, some not found for periods of up to two weeks. This is no surprise when years of austerity have destroyed many local services and fragmented adult social care. It is the danger of such extreme social isolation that poses the saddest of all community challenges for post pandemic life.
We know that the smallest shifts in behaviour can have a massive impact. So a question we are grappling with is, how can we all, as active citizens, accept some degree of responsibility for those living in closest proximity to us, even if this is a minimal recognition that curtains have been drawn and there is evidence of life in the house so all must be well. In nudge theory – what is the nudge?
Throughout the pandemic, the basic renewal of an ageless community spirit, emanating from our doorsteps not centralised government policy is a fantastic starting point. The concept of community has grown in status and shown to deliver real and humanising impact. It has demonstrated real potential to provide a vital preventative antidote to what is possibly the nation’s most virulent modern pandemic – the loneliness inherent in social exclusion, of belonging to the tribe of the unnoticed!
Ready Generations believe that intergenerational approaches have real value in building sustainable communities and effective policymaking in education and social care recognises the positive impact of connection across ages.
Loneliness affects us all at different points in our lives, yet we tend to think of loneliness and old age as common bed fellows. Ready Generations’ work extends to understanding the impact on health and wellbeing of loneliness across all generations, understanding that even the youngest children can be affected by the impact of loneliness when they feel their needs are not understood or met by the adults who care for them. Young families can feel incredibly alone as they adapt to life with children and the new limitations on their social availability this inevitably brings. As we age, it becomes easier to recognise the life changes that can trigger loneliness – separation, divorce, empty nest syndrome, loss of loved ones, physical frailty, loss of social contacts – the list is endless. We can also have none of these challenges yet still feel a sense of penetrating loneliness in the midst of whirling social calendars, careers and social media hype. Any of us can easily become a member of the tribe of the unnoticed.
We hope that our nursery project interlacing the everyday lives of children, families and older people will bring more learning and understanding of how to design around lived experience. By virtue of being so young, children act unconsciously within the world – they are curious and intuitively experience wonder in the simplest of things – a flower, a beetle, a cloud! We intend to learn from this as we plan sensory, connected spaces both in and outdoors for everyone to enjoy and play in. We have been inspired by the work of Erling Kagge. In his wise book Silence in the Age of Noise he speaks of childlike wonder as the very engine of life and one of the most powerful forces with which we are born. Older people, when re-connected sensitively with the young are given a unique space and time to revisit their own personal concept of wonder. The impact can be extraordinary for both groups and there is often joyful, life affirming magic at play when the two are brought together. Even those that may feel they have not got the energy or desire to be with very young children can be positively affected. We have witnessed this so many times and love the story of Rene.
Rene with her friend Pixie – nearly a century separates them.
Rene was 96 years old and living in a North West Care village when she became involved with intergenerational activity. Although physically frail and wheelchair bound she was alert and smart. After a nature session with toddlers looking at the colours and shapes of spring flowers, she became wistful and started to write. She wrote the words of the song This is My Lovely Day from the 1947 London musical Bless the Bride. She recounted how her husband, Charlie took her to see the stars of the musical, George Guetary and Lizbeth Webb at the Adelphi Theatre, London in 1948. It was her lovely day and she felt she had been blessed by another special lovely day spent with the children. She wrote of the children as messengers of memory and delight. She died a month later just days short of her 97th birthday.
During a similar session, Mary, a day-resident suffering with advanced dementia whose mood was often low and who struggled to accommodate others into her narrowing world, grew in confidence and life, telling the children the latin names of trees and flowers and explaining about native and non-native plants. She had been a Forestry Ranger in the Scottish Lowlands. On collecting his wife after the session, Mary’s husband was amazed by the lightness of her mood and positive engagement with the children. He reported that her improved mood lasted well into the following day as did her constant requests to join another session with the children.
At this time, more than ever, it is worth reflecting with a renewed seriousness about what brings real purpose and joy to living and the conditions that enable life’s most simple gifts to best hold their value throughout life and without interruption at whatever age!
Misuzu Kaneko was right – Are you just an echo?
No, you are everyone through constellations of connection.
Rene’s writing following the intergenerational session.