Illustration: Eleanor Shakespeare


Could age-gap-defying friendships be a tonic for us all?

A care home that integrates older residents and children has recently opened up in south London – and it’s got Marisa Bate pondering the benefits of intergenerational companionship

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By Marisa Bate on

Anna and Martha are fast becoming friends. Anna is 93 and Martha is three, but the 90 year age gap doesn’t seem to be a problem.

Anna’s care home and Martha's nursery are on the same site, and the intergenerational care they receive from Nightingale House in Wandsworth, south London, is the first offering of it’s kind in the UK. The children join the adults for songs, games and conversation. Ninety-year-old Fay Garcia, who used to work for the UN in New York, told The Independent: “After a time you recognise them, they recognise you. It’s almost like a visit from lovely young friends.”

Last year, Channel 4 ran an experiment based on the same idea: a group of four-year-olds spent time in a care home for the elderly in Bristol. The programme saw the residents move more, with one man even discarding his walking stick to pretend to be a lion on the floor. The children also clearly lifted the residents’ spirits – although it won’t come as a surprise to many that limited amounts of time with small children that aren’t your own is a joy.   

The friendship of Anna and Martha is an interesting one. Martha makes a beeline for Anna on her arrival on a Monday: “Hello, Anna!”, shows off her dress and flashes a smile. Anna is in wonder at the small person’s confidence: “Can you imagine looking at a 93-year-old and still saying hello?”

Martha displays all the wonderful, stomping confidence that little girls have (think of Marion), until they realise the world is watching and waiting to trip them up. Martha comes with nothing but a “what you see is what you get” approach to life. There is no agenda, there’s no self-doubt. There’s just Martha. And the 93-year-old in front of her is just her new friend. Martha hasn’t been trained yet to worry about what she says to strangers, what might be appropriate or not, or to tiptoe around old people, the way adults do – as if we ourselves will never be that way.

Anna, I’d like to presume, has met enough people to know that this three-year-old’s company is as good, if not better, than most. And, besides, she won’t come with the baggage the rest of us do; her questions will be straightforward, honest and to the point; her friendship will be demand-free. She'll make no judgements other than on the evidence she has in front of her. They’ll be no unspoken rivalry or feelings of neglect or rejection. Crucially, neither Anna nor Martha focus on their differences – they’re just both there to sing Frère Jacques and have a good time.

When was the last time you took someone, purely and solely, for what you saw in front of you?

The intended byproduct of this hangout session is the health and wellbeing of all involved. But I think there’s another unintended one, and that’s what it reflects back on those of us in the middle. Most days it can feel like we’re navigating our way through all sorts of political, problematic friendships and relationships – at work, at home, in the netball team. Like Yoda and her mini-Jedi disciple, Anna and Martha float around each other, delighted in the simplicity of good company. The rest of us, it feels, drag our hang-ups, our insecurities and our prejudices (presumably something you’ve longed to move on from, at Anna’s age) behind us, like trailers full of bin bags, creating hurdles to get over and round in order to reach one another. I worry that our selfie-obsessed culture means that we increasingly only understand others through ourselves – how does this person make me feel? What do they say about me? Our hall-of-mirrors existence is making it hard to see who others really are, beyond our own internal monologues. Outside of the filters, we think making friends is something we leave behind at Freshers week. We guard our time and are suspicious of those who want some. When did we become so closed off?

To say we live in divided times is as much of a cliché as it is true; from the big political splits to the in-fighting within movements, we’re all at war with someone – a Trumpian ambition that has poisoned the water supply. We’re pitted on either side of a pitch, shouting at each other, but it feels like the wind is swallowing our words and we only end up hearing ourselves. In the pub or at a friend’s house for dinner, someone will whisper an opinion with nuance and shade, frightened to say it loudly in case their lack of conviction to the cause is detected.

And so, with all the chaos of who we are, with all the divided lines of politics and identity, with all of our increasingly introverted self-obsession, how easy is it to meet someone on Anna and Martha’s terms? Can we ever wish anyone good morning without a million references woven into the inflection of our voices or the tilt of our heads? When was the last time you took someone, purely and solely, for what you saw in front of you? Anna and Martha have the best part of a century between them, but they wouldn’t know it, and they are all the happier for it.


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Illustration: Eleanor Shakespeare
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Marisa Bate

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