British Geriatrics Society

Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds

Dr Zoe Wyrko is a Consultant physician at University Hospital Birmingham and is the Director of Workforce for the BGS. In this blog she discusses the recent Channel 4 programme in which she appeared, Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds. She tweets @geri_baby

I’ve always had a soft spot for care homes. As a child I would occasionally go into work with my Mum and meet some of the old ladies she talked about. When I was older I started work in the same nursing home as a kitchen girl on Saturdays, and then later progressed to health care assistant. I remain proud of my training record from that time, showing I am competent to deliver personal care, clean dentures and cut nails.

This is why I was excited when an approach came from CPL productions, who were looking for geriatricians to be involved with a television programme they wanted to make about introducing children to a care home environment. I think we’ve all seen the effect on older adults when a child or a baby comes onto a hospital ward. Those who have been disinterested or quiet often perk up and become engaged, conversations start, reminiscence happens and everyone is just happier for a little while.

An initial telephone conversation led to a couple of filmed interviews, and then Channel 4 deciding ‘whether they liked the look of me’! Planning then started in earnest, deciding along with the production team which tests we could use easily that would be both interesting to watch and simple to understand. The programme was also very firmly an experiment, and not research, which meant we needed to be mindful of not raising potentially ethically challenging situations with the information we were collecting.

I loved working with the older people taking part in the programme. I found it humbling (and a real treat) to be the guest in their environment, having time to chat and find out more about them, and what had happened during their lives for them to now be living at St Monica Trust. I was fascinated by David (the retired geologist) when he started to talk about the places he had been and the exploring he had done, there is even a tributary of a Norwegian river named after him. Zena and I spent a lot of time talking about her sons and grandchildren back in Holland, and the travelling she used to do with her husband. Linda, always beautifully coordinated, spoke with me about favourite clothes designers. Although they all knew I was on the series because of my profession, not being ‘their’ doctor allowed a different type of relationship to develop which I am grateful for.

The success of the experiment was a genuine surprise. I knew that the older volunteers would feel better, and possibly be a bit more active. I wasn’t expecting the changes we saw in depression, grip strength and speed of movement. I also carried out the Edmonton frailty scale on the participants which didn’t make it in to the final cut (for time and lay understanding, rather than political reasons) and we saw frailty scores improve in a number of participants. Clock drawing tests were more fluent, and continence improved for one person. The sports day was amazing, seeing Linda who was almost too scared to move at the start running with her frame brought a tear to my eye. It wasn’t a stunt for the camera, the only people encouraging her were the participants but most importantly her new best friend Amiya.

The huge question now is ‘what next’? The production company had hoped the social experiment would inspire individuals and communities – and it has. I am struggling to keep up with my twitter timeline currently, and there are so many people I need to reply to (apologies if you are one of them). We need to do this, intergenerationality has to become normal. Care homes and retirement communities are good for the people who need their services and housing needs, but we mustn’t allow the walls of a building to become mental as well as physical barriers. Will this help us with genuine integration? So many organisations will need to work together for success, but it is not impossible.

Watch this space …. I’ll be in touch.