Photo courtesy Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)

Four-year-old Aiden serves as a personal trainer of sorts to Eric, an 84-year-old retired tradesman whose sedentary life has left him frail and tentative on his feet. “Come on, Eric,” encourages Aiden, a confident and assertive preschooler. “Keep walking, keep walking.” 

Protective Ruby is a gentle guide to former banker Bryan, who has lost his enthusiasm for pretty much everything as his eyesight started to fail. Bryan describes himself as “past his use-by date” and is severely depressed. “We’re here to die and the sooner the better,” he says – at least before this four-year-old coaxes him to find joy in simple pleasures such as cradling a newborn duckling. 

Shirley, 89, a former florist whose short-term memory is slipping, is feeling lonely and isolated until the caring Tyrone comes along. The preschooler showers her with hugs, goofy little-kid humor, and some old-school fun and games like singing, dancing, and dressing up.

Welcome to the delightful, charming, and poignant world of “Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds,” a Netflix series centered on a social experiment about the potential benefits of pairing preschoolers with a group of elderly in an “aged care” facility. The series, which originally aired on Australian public broadcaster ABC, is modeled after a  British documentary of the same name that followed a pilot project in Bristol, Britain.

Photo courtesy Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)

The five-part first season of the Australian documentary series matched 10 very young children with 11 very old residents who volunteered to participate in the program over the course of seven weeks. The series is set in a retirement village for military veterans in Sydney’s Northern Beaches, surrounded by bushland and water with cockatoos, kookaburras and rosellas providing a welcome soundtrack in this tranquil setting. As senior housing goes, it looks pretty pleasant. Still, loneliness and depression are an ever-present backdrop.

Enter the children. As they bound through the doors, they help bridge the first intergenerational gap to emerge: the aging ear unprepared for modern names. The youngsters are remarkably patient with their elderly partners, who are slow to move and have difficulty hearing, including making sense of unfamiliar names—like Reef and Jax—articulated by young mouths.

At the start of the documentary, viewers learn, a geriatric physical therapist screens the senior participants on strength, fitness, and balance measures. A psychologist who specializes in working with the elderly also conducts a mood assessment to screen for depression. Not surprisingly, the majority of the old folks could use a boost to their mood and mobility. Some also scored worrisomely low on indexes for strength, walking speed, and fall risk, while others landed in the danger zone for depression.

On season 1, newcomer Grace, 89, threw herself into activities with the children with pleasure, but died before the show aired (Photo courtesy: ABC)

Here’s where the kids come into play. The preschool program is intended as an antidote to the loneliness, isolation and boredom that so often characterizes life in a retirement home or aged care facility, where residents are often fragile, sedentary and depressed. 

Might a busy bunch of little people – curious, enthusiastic, imaginative, spontaneous, full of  wonder – help reignite a zest for life, motivate participation, and provide a positive catalyst for change in a group of seniors, many of whom have chronic health conditions and rarely leave the chairs in their room or talk to anyone? What could the very old and the very young offer each other if given a chance? 

“Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds” explores these questions with the assistance of both geriatricians and an early childhood expert. In particular, it looks at whether intergenerational care can help improve quality of life – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually – for vulnerable elderly.

“In Australia modern medicine has increased our life expectancy but not necessarily the quality of those extra years of life,” says Susan Kurrle, a professor in health care of older people at the University of Sydney and a series advisor. “What’s the point in having more years in life if we don’t actually have life in those years?…It often only takes a small thing to tip the balance between waiting to die and enjoying the rest of your life.”

Series expert Stephanie Ward, a geriatrician at the Ageing Futures Institute at the University of New South Wales, also debunks one of the myths about intergenerational relationships by reminding viewers that this is not a one-way experience: Having older people in their lives is good for the young ones as well.

From “Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds”

An antidote to the senior loneliness epidemic

It’s not news that there is an epidemic of loneliness, isolation and depression among the elderly. While life expectancy has increased in many countries, that doesn’t necessarily equate to quality of life in those extra years. Many people in their 70s to 90s+ who live in senior housing or live alone describe a bleak existence, devoid of social stimulation and companionship. More than 40% of aged care residents receive no visitors and spend up to 20 hours a day in their rooms, according to the streaming series. Half of all such residents experience depression. 

As Maureen, 81, a retired elementary teacher with multiple medical conditions and physical ailments, says in the show: “I love people. And I need to be out. I can feel very low and sorry for myself.” Says Shirley: “Life is empty. I can’t do the things I’d like to do or used to do. I hate being lonely. It’s a long day and a long night.”

Research reveals that isolation, loneliness, and depression makes the elderly sicker. The World Health Organization estimates that in some countries one in three elderly people are lonely. Numerous studies have linked social interaction with decreased loneliness, delayed mental decline, lower blood pressure, and reduced risk of disease and death in seniors, according to sources such as the American Psychological Association and the National Institute on Aging. Socializing across generations has many positive benefits for older adults, as reflected in ongoing research on the subject in Japan.

Still, what elders would willingly trade their quiet routines for the raucous presence of a posse of preschoolers?

Quite a few, as it turns out. “Old People’s Home For 4 Year Olds” reveals some surprises on that score, including a trio of grumpy old men straight out of central casting spiritedly engaged in a pretend play version of afternoon tea, passing tiny cups to each other and cracking jokes along the way. Similarly, some of the more reserved seniors happily don super hero capes and crazy hair as part of an imaginary play activity with the kids. Even the simple act of eating lunch with the wee ones is an opportunity for teachable moments, conversation, and laughter together.

The series unfolds in a flurry of activity: arts and crafts projects, cooking and gardening, dancing and singing. There’s a relay race to run and a maze to explore, time spent outdoors gathering treasures, sand play, and a bench to paint together to commemorate the program. For the older set, the carefully curated curriculum is designed to encourage physical activity and social interaction. 

The activities are also intended to help foster connection and communication, team work, fine and gross motor skills, empathy, and fun. There’s interaction with animals (who can resist a baby duckling hatching?) and games aimed at helping both age groups with brain function and memory. The program culminates in what one senior dubs a “delightfully unsophisticated” concert. 

The preschoolers’ anticipation and excitement – about watching those eggs hatch, making cookies, going to the beach, eating an ice cream – rubs off on the seniors; their enthusiasm and energy is contagious. 

Perhaps most tellingly, the show illustrates that small steps can make a difference between the elderly withdrawing and waiting to die to having them genuinely treasuring the time they have left. They are re-energized by common activities, shared purpose, and developing bonds.

Along with enthusiasm from the public, the show won an International Emmy Award. Courtesy Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Of course, it’s not all fun and games. There are lessons in adapting – for preschoolers and seniors alike – as things don’t always go according to plan. The elderly get sick and require knee surgery. The young have trouble sharing or sitting still. The program encourages all participants to get out of their comfort zones, face their fears, and develop resilience.

The underlying message of the series: A warm, meaningful existence is attainable in the twilight years. Nobody is ever too old to play silly games, try something new, take reasonable risks, get in touch with their inner child or experience joy.

As one of the participants remarks at a concert attended by family, friends and retirement center residents: “These beautiful children came into our lives and gave us a reason to get out of bed in the morning.”

Sparking progress on intergenerational living

The series isn’t just entertaining – it’s had an impact.  As ABC Managing Director David Anderson said at a special screening of the show at Parliament House in Canberra last year: “The program sparked national conversations about important issues informing, educating and entertaining Australians, fostering positive change and social cohesion.”

The parliamentary screening was hosted by the ABC’s impact partner, the Older Persons Advocacy Network (OPAN), which focuses on how to support isolated older Australians living alone at home, the subject of the second series of the show. While around 220,000 Australians live in aged care facilities, some 1.6 million aging Australians live at home, said executive producer Debbie Cuell during an interview about the award-winning series, produced by Endemol Shine Australia for the ABC. OPAN launched a Stay Connected and Supported in Your Community campaign. The nation-wide initiative, funded by the Commonwealth Department of Health, connects older people with support programs and community people volunteering to connect with them.

Added Cuell: “This is a passion project for me. It’s really good to see Australians get behind this; it will help effect change across the country.” She noted that following the airing of the first season, the state government of Victoria helped fund an intergenerational learning center set to open in 2023.

After the first series aired, there was also a doubling of registrations for Playgroup Australia to do play groups in aged care facilities, according to geriatrician Ward on the same interview. There were two combined aged care and child care centers that were authorized and got funding partially as a result of the response to the show. Ward is involved in a pilot study in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, which she hopes will lead to a modified version of the show’s program in that community. The doctor, who also works in nursing homes, says she saw an uptick in school and child visits. “There’s a lot of scope to do things in this space and it may not just be with 4-year-olds,” Ward said. “There’s so much potential here.”

While the series may serve as a potential model for intergenerational living in Australia, such innovations already exist in some other countries. For instance, in Seattle Providence Mount Saint Vincent’s Intergenerational Learning Center, a licensed nonprofit childcare center and preschool within a retirement community, 125 children share space five days a week with 400 Washington state seniors; it was the subject of its own documentary, “The Growing Season” (formerly Present Perfect), released in 2017. Still earlier, in 1976, Japanese pioneer Shimada Masaharu began a nursery school next to an existing aged care facility that later led to an integration of both programs under one roof. Kotoen, a social welfare corporation, has served as an inspiration for other joint care facilities in Japan, Canada, and the United States

Interest in intergenerational care is growing elsewhere, including Denmark and the United Kingdom. The goal of such collaborations includes celebrating and respecting generational differences, countering ageism, increasing the quality of life of senior citizens, educating the very young, and building bonds that speak to our common humanity – whether someone is 3 or 103.

Photo courtesy Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Research at Stanford University reveals that aging adults are ideally suited to spend time with young children. That finding is on full display in each episode of “Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds.” On top of imparting the wisdom and experience of age to the young, the elderly often have the time and patience to provide the kind of guidance that young children need. Maureen teaches a reluctant Michaela about the importance of taking turns. Irene helps an upset Buddy understand what it means to compromise on a team. For the elderly, such interactions underscore a sense of usefulness – a feeling that they are able to positively influence the next generation. 

Historically, humans have lived in intergenerational settings, with grandparents and even great-grandparents often sharing the same home with their children and grandchildren. But in the present day, many of  the responsibilities of child and elder care are outsourced to professionals, out of necessity or in some cases preference. Now, there is renewed interest in revisiting the interdependence of young and old, as was once an ordinary way of life. “Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds” makes a strong case for intergenerational living.

Yet even for those who love the presence of small children, what happens when the little ones leave or a program like the one in the TV series is over and seniors are left alone again in their rooms with little human interaction or a sense of purpose? Funding for such programs – along with the rigid and highly regulated bureaucracy that governs many aged care facilities – remain major obstacles for the widespread adoption of such innovations. “Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds” provides warm and fuzzy feelings. But after the children leave, troubling realities remain. 

Happily, in an epilogue we learn friendships formed during the show endure outside the residential facility. Families have adopted their child’s special senior friend and visit them or invite them home for holidays. Regular visits to the preschool are also encouraged long after the cameras leave.

The series has won numerous awards, including an Emmy. Its final episode celebrates improvements in strength, fitness, and mood for the seniors – and social skills, confidence, and language for the young ones – as indications of success. Resonating with both critics and audiences, the show was so popular it led to a second season. That series tweaked the premise slightly: The young ones visit the elderly in their own homes, since the vast majority of seniors in Australia age in place.

And, this year, a different kind of age-related investigation from the team is in a spinoff series showing in Australia, which you can see a glimpse of below. Stand by for “Old People’s Home for Teenagers.”