United Kingdom (London)
Playing instruments, tapping out rhythms, popping bubbles and waving colourful scarves; the aptly-named Songs & Smiles brings music, fun and friendship to 0-4 year olds, their grown-ups and older adults in care homes and sheltered housing.
Run by The Together Project, Smiles & Songs was founded by marketing strategist Louise Goulden. The social enterprise was born out of a desire to channel her professional expertise into a venture that brings about positive social change for local communities. Today it runs weekly in 21 care homes and sheltered housing schemes across the UK.
Rates of ‘severe loneliness’ in older adults living in residential care are estimated to be more than double those experienced by people in the wider community. The problem is particularly acute for those who are living with mental health conditions, including dementia, with 80% saying they feel lonely. Reduced mobility, living far away from family, a lack of opportunities to socialise in the wider community and deteriorating health can leave people shut off from the rest of society and create distressing social isolation.
“One of the most important elements of ageing well is to feel meaningfully connected to others. As we get older and our opportunities to get out and try new things often diminish, it’s vital that human relationships remain a key part of our lives,” Louise Goulden, the founder, tells us. “These relationships, where possible, should be reciprocal – people coming together to enjoy each other’s company. Reciprocity is important! It’s not just about one group doing something ‘for another’, it’s about mutual benefit. Older people must feel a valued part of their society, rather than shut away in institutions. Innovative initiatives that encourage social integration are key.”
When Louise was on maternity leave with her son in 2017, she felt a strong desire to be more connected to her local community and to meet a wider circle of people, other than just parents. She had volunteered with older people for over a decade and witnessed the devastating impacts of loneliness, and had also seen the way that her little boy could bring a smile to strangers’ faces and help initiate conversation when out and about. “My original idea what to take him to a local care home once a week for a cup of tea with whoever fancied a chat, but then I thought, ‘if one parent and child could brighten someone’s day, what could a group of people getting together on a regular basis achieve?’. I researched existing intergenerational activities and found there was a real space for innovative work in this area, and so I set up my social enterprise The Together Project and launched our first initiative – weekly multi-age music group Songs & Smiles. It was clear from the outset that something magical had been created.”
The joy-filled weekly hour-long sessions bring the community together to sing, move, play and forge new connections, allowing people who might not ordinarily come into contact to get to know each other. For some, visiting these types of residences can be quite an unfamiliar activity.
Sessions are structured around key themes of ‘Speeds, Beats, Actions and Movement’ and the beauty lies in the reciprocity – it’s not about one group doing something ‘for’ another, it’s people coming together for mutual benefit. Young children have older adults in their lives as regular playmates, helping to create positive perceptions as they grow. Parents have the opportunity to demonstrate positive behaviours for their children – kindness, empathy, patience – as well as experiencing a reduction in the isolation that new parenthood can often bring. And the older people experience a range of benefits, from reductions in loneliness to greater wellbeing – from improvements in motor skills and cognitive functions to a sense of connection to the wider world around them.
“Songs & Smiles is a wonderful project that bridges the gap between generations. Our residents get so much out of it, I’d recommend it to any care home.” – Deepak Luckhan, Manager of Ross Wyld Care Home, London
Songs & Smiles is very relaxed and informal. Some children stay seated and join in the songs, some like to stand up and dance, others just have a cuddle with their grown-up whilst enjoying the atmosphere. The residents enjoy seeing children of different ages: little babies provide the ‘ahhh’ factor, while the toddlers provide lots of entertainment.
The people living in the homes are mostly older people, many of whom have reduced mobility and some of whom have disabilities. This can make it challenging for them to leave the home on a regular basis, so visitors can be a real highlight of their day. Some of the residents have dementia. The oldest memories are generally the clearest, so at Songs & Smiles they sing songs that the residents remember from their own childhoods, like ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’.
“It’s no exaggeration to say that our team smile every single day when we receive feedback from parents and guardians, older people and care homes and sheltered scheme staff about the impact that Songs & Smiles has across all generations,” Louise adds. “My favourite stories are the insights into ways that the sessions impact people on a very individual level. For example, one lady who is living with dementia and would swear a lot has now completely stopped since the children started visiting: she knows that she shouldn’t swear in front of them and has continued that in the rest of her life. It’s made her a calmer, more contented person. I’ve witnessed people who are thought to be non-verbal communicators begin to sing along in our sessions after a few weeks. One older lady told us that she gets a carer to paint her nails every Monday for when ‘the babies’ arrive. I love that the sessions are encouraging simple acts of self-care. And the effect on new generations is critical too: our team member’s two-year old, who’s been attending Songs & Smiles since she was a few months’ old, pointed to a group of older ladies in the supermarket and said ‘friends!’. She is learning to see older adults as playmates, people to have fun with, and that’s so important for how young people view the ageing process as they grow up. They’re the next generation of policy makers, innovators, carers and so forth.”
Louise wants to expand as far and wide as possible, “giving everyone that wants to be involved the chance to experience the joy, togetherness and community spirit that sessions promote.”
The long-term aim is to have a range of different intergenerational activities focusing on bringing people of different age groups and living circumstances together. “Having a young child with you is a great icebreaker. Playing peekaboo, waving, shaking a tambourine together – these are some of the lovely ways that residents, children and their grown-ups can bond.”
Louise Goulden, Founder, The Together Project
This project was submitted by you for AgeFutures, a new storytelling project that maps the innovations transforming the lives of older people, and the designers, entrepreneurs and community leaders – across all generations – behind them. Atlas of the Future is excited to partner with Independent Age.