As a new series launches, we explain why the devastatingly sweet Channel 4 programme is essential viewing.
Last year proved to be an excellent one for television, both national and international: The Handmaid’s Tale called upon women around the world to wake up and stand up for their human rights; Three Girls gave the Rochdale victims a voice; Game of Thrones broke taboos with a feminist sex scene; The Replacement explored fears around maternity leave; Big Little Lies put women front and centre of their own stories, and GLOW shone a much-deserved light on women’s wrestling.
All of these dramas have been wonderfully scripted, impossibly addictive and phenomenally thought-provoking. They’ve made countless headlines, sparked plenty of debates and reawakened our passion for high-quality ‘water-cooler’ TV. Subsequently, they’ve all earned a place on our list of the most important TV shows of all time – and they’ve since been joined by none other than one of Channel 4’s reality TV experiments.
We’re talking about Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds.
Read more: Why we are so scared of growing old
Heartbreakingly sweet, the documentary series sees preschoolers swap their nursery for a nursing home as they join a group of 11 pensioners at a St Monica Trust care home for six weeks.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, the elderly residents soon find themselves being dragged out of their comfy armchairs by sticky little hands. Hamish and his fellow residents join the children in their daily lessons, help with craft projects, coo over newly hatched baby ducklings, and even get down on the floor to play Sleeping Lions with their tiny new BFFs.
They go for picnics, they join in races and they teach the children some valuable life lessons – and learn some from the little ones in return, too.
Yes, it’s adorable. Yes, there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. And, yes, there are some tear-jerking scenes. But this show is aiming to do something far more worthy than take us for a ride on an emotional rollercoaster.
Instead, it’s hoping to challenge our approach to elderly care, stress the importance of intergenerational meet-ups, and open our eyes to the devastating effect loneliness can have on the older members of our community.
Each of the trust’s residents taking part in the experiment is given the chance to speak openly and honestly about the issues facing older people, including their struggles with depression, lack of mobility and loneliness.
During the 2017 experiment, we saw Linda, 80, admit that she feels “very down” before joining the show, but her friendship with little Amiya soon lifted her spirits and boosts her energy levels. It wasn’t long before the pair of them were running hand-in-hand across a croquet lawn – both with huge smiles on their faces.
Zina, meanwhile, explained that she had been suffering from depression ever since her husband was diagnosed with dementia. But when the children asked for her help smashing up a piñata, she was soon swinging away at the brightly coloured donkey and laughing with delight.
David, an 89-year-old retired geologist who once led expeditions to the Arctic, wasn’t involved in the experiment at first. However, when he heard the sound of children’s laughter, his curiosity was piqued.
And wasn’t long before he’s joined the group and lost his heart to “poppet” Eva, who firmly encouraged him to join her for a nice long walk. No small feat for David, considering the fact that he spends the majority of his days sat in his chair since being widowed several years ago.
But it was, perhaps, Hamish who underwent the greatest transformation. A lifelong bachelor with no family of his own, the 88-year-old was the most sceptical about the experiment, insisting that he couldn’t see how a group of children would have any effect on his life whatsoever.
He soon realised that he had underestimated his new friends: by the end of the first episode, he was clambering down on his hands and knees to play with the children and even rushed to join them in looking at a flock of little ducklings, without a second thought for his walking stick or artificial leg.
Speaking about the children’s reaction to his leg (which was amputated when he was 14 years old), Hamish said: “The children didn’t seem to take any great notice of it and they accepted us for whatever abilities or disabilities we have. One of the children, Millie came and pushed [my leg]. I told her it was a wooden leg and the doctor had chopped it off, which she found extremely funny in an innocent way.
“They all regarded my artificial leg as part of me – just Hamish.”
According to Age UK, there are 1.2 million older people in the country who are suffering from chronic loneliness: 200,000 have not had a conversation with a friends or family for a month, and an overwhelming 3.9 million say that the television is their main form of company.
Similarly, it has been reported that around 60% of nursing home residents never receive visitors and are living in “social isolation” – with many admitting that they don’t even receive letters or calls from loved ones.
So what can a group of boisterous children do to change this?
Well, according to a gerontologist, a geriatrician and a physiotherapist – who measured and analysed the older groups’ physical and mental progress throughout – a great deal: the residents felt far happier, far more connected, and far less sedentary when the children were present. They were more inclined to laugh and try new things. Their memories improved, their spirits were lifted, and their energy levels soared.
Quite honestly, though, we didn’t need the scientists to point that out for us: it’s far easier to walk if you have someone there beside you. You’re more likely to laugh and smile if someone is there to tell you a joke. Your memory is likely to improve if you have a reason to remember someone’s name. Your feelings of loneliness will likely ebb away if someone chatters away to you and listens to your stories. Your heart will swell if someone throws their arms around you for a great big hug. And a friendly hand in yours is guaranteed to get you out of your seat, no matter how low you might feel.
As Zina beautifully put it: “The most important thing in life is to be loved, and children have such a pure and positive love.
“To find a child’s hand in yours is one of the most moving things that can happen to you.”
Dr Zoe Wyrko, consultant geriatrician at University Hospital Birmingham, who watched the bonds develop, says that as a society we must take steps to embrace the idea.
“I can’t understand why the UK has been so slow about doing this,” she tells the Mail Online. “It is really common in the US and intergenerationality is vital. Older people say they feel better when there are younger people around.”
Indeed, the scheme has proven so very effective that St Monica Trust has decided to create open communities that actively encourage contact across different generations.
David Williams, chief executive, said: “As well building play areas at all of our sites, the trust will establish a children’s nursery at the heart of one of our retirement communities.
“The St Monica Trust also will continue to nurture the wonderful relationships established by this project between our residents and the children of the local preschools.”
Hopefully, the show will encourage more of us to reach out and speak to an elderly person when we sit next to them on the bus or walk past them at the supermarket, or try to brighten up their day in some small way. To pick up the phone and give our older relatives a ring. To put pen to paper and write a letter. To find time in our schedules to pop by and visit with them, chat with them, and help them to feel like human beings again. To, above all else, listen to them – and remind them that they are not alone.
You can find out about Age UK’s befriending services (both telephone and face-to-face) on its website. Or, if you are worried about an elderly relative or neighbour, the website also provides advice on how best to overcome loneliness.
You can watch Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds on All4 now.
Images: Channel 4
This article was originally published in 2017.