Talking to Children Improves Older Adults' Wellbeing

Regular interactions with young children may give older adults a sense of purpose and improve their mood, which could be protective against common mental health conditions.

Aging is associated with many life changes and challenges. Reduced physical capabilities and some loss of independence after moving to an assisted living or residential home may lead to common mental health conditions (CMHCs), such as depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and others. While studies show that physical health is well cared for in retirement homes, mental health often receives less attention.

A new study published in PLOS ONE investigated how interactions with young children affect the mental health of older adults living in residential homes in South Africa.

All 10 study participants were female over 60, half of whom were between the ages of 80 to 89. The participants came from a range of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.

A children's play school was established in the residential home in 2018, allowing to hold regular, non-compulsory interactive sessions between the residents and children aged three to five years old. The interactions happen twice a week and include a 60-minute session of playing interactive games such as passing a ball to each other or building puzzles. The children also do additional events with the home on special occasions, such as singing songs with them on public holidays.

The researchers used two screening questionnaires to assess if the participants have CMHCs and conducted interviews to discuss the effect of interactions with children.

The study found that most participants (83%) screened negative for depression or anxiety who interacted with the children one to two times per week. One participant who screened negative for both conditions had the most interactions with children, three to four times per week.

However, half the participants who screened positive for CMHC interacted with the children the most (three to four times per week), while the other two interacted with the children only rarely.

The interviews revealed that interactions with children made the retirement home residents feel like part of the community or even a family. Moreover, it gave a sense of purpose: as older people developed an active role in the children's lives, they felt they could make a valuable contribution to the community. Engagements also gave the residents something to look forward to and, as a result, more sense of purpose.

The participants reported that seeing the children brought a positive shift in mood, which could be protective against CMHC in older adults.

However, the researchers say that the findings may not be generalizable to a larger population due to a small number of participants. As the study was short-term, the effect of intergenerational interactions on symptomatic CMHCs over time remains unclear.

Nevertheless, the authors recommend intergenerational interactions in residential homes to improve the residents' mental wellbeing.

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