At 10am on a Friday morning, a class of Kindergarten 2 (K2) pupils from the Church of Holy Trinity Kindergarten (CHTK) was making its way down the gently winding paths of HortPark, led by their watchful teachers. This Friday was part of a collaboration in a long-standing partnership between Apex Harmony Lodge (AHL) and CHTK.
AHL, a nursing home for persons with dementia, first embarked on their intergenerational bonding programme (IGBP) four years ago. For this session held at HortPark, instead of the typical congregation in the comfort of the function room as they do weekly, seniors with dementia and the K2 pupils are trying out therapeutic horticultural activities together, facilitated by the HortPark’s programme coordinators. The aim is to help improve the physical and mental well-being of participants and increase social interaction.
Connected by the Lien Foundation, AHL and CHTK initially brought their seniors and pupils together to facilitate intergenerational interactions through LEGO bricks activities. Since then, the IGBP has become a signature of CHTK’s curriculum for K2 pupils as well as an integral part of AHL’s holistic and integrated dementia care.
The partnership with CHTK started as AHL sought to generate more social inclusion to combat the isolation of living in a nursing home. For CHTK, the programme provides practical lessons to instil virtues in their pupils and create awareness of the real world beyond the school environment. This synergistic partnership with CHTK is the longest running among AHL’s multiple partnerships with schools for children and youths of different ages. It won them a Quality and Productivity Festival Excellence Award in Client Experience Improvement (Nursing Home category), awarded by the Agency for Integrated Care in 2018.
Once a week, seniors at AHL spend an hour interacting with the six-year-olds from CHTK. Through the activities, the nurturing side of the seniors is revealed. Ms Siti Arsat, Senior Therapeutic Programme Executive at AHL, shares that the children bring out the best in these seniors because the seniors can assume a mentoring role, instead of being people who are cared for in a nursing home.
The weekly activities of the intergenerational bonding are tailored to be developmentally appropriate to both children as well as seniors with varying progressions of dementia.
For the children in this crucial stage of development, exposure to seniors with dementia lays the building blocks for better attitudes towards ageing, empathy towards the elderly, and acceptance of persons with dementia who face stigma in wider society. Parents have given feedback that their children have become more proactive in engaging their own grandparents, and have become more considerate of the elderly.
For the two therapeutic horticulture sessions at HortPark, the facilitators kick off the day’s activities by leading both the seniors and pupils in a series of quick and simple warm-up exercises. After that, they take tours about the therapeutic garden, which is full of plants that excite and stimulate the different senses through appearance, smell and texture; they even evoke strong memories for some. These include plants that are fragrant, edible or medicinal, coloured or textured; some also attract birds and butterflies.
Designed using science-based principles, therapeutic gardens are deliberately planned to facilitate people’s interactions with nature and improve mental well-being. Studies have observed psychological and cognitive benefits in participants after each session of therapeutic horticulture.
Throughout the walk, teachers and facilitators gently remind pupils to let “grandma” or “grandpa” go first when the group manoeuvres tighter walkways. When HortPark facilitator Ms Poon Siew Luan introduces certain plants, she encourages pupils to share the fragrant leaves of the pandan or cotton-like fluff from the kapok plant with the seniors so they can all examine the samples more closely.
The seniors and pupils then try out two different hands-on activities for each outing. At the first one, the group tried their hand at leaf printing. Leaves are gathered from around the park to be painted in bright colours and then stamped on the hemp cloth.
During the second outing, pupils and seniors arrange flora commonly seen around Singapore at the “Floral Bar” to create striking bouquets. Seniors and pupils were then assigned into mini groups to enable deeper and more meaningful interactions as they work on their projects together.
Notably, language barriers are a natural occurrence with many of the seniors preferring to converse in dialects that the children do not speak at home or school. However, with facial expressions and gestures, the seniors and pupils communicated and collaborated successfully to put beautiful bouquets together.
In between printing leaves and cutting stems, there were also moments of grandfatherly and grandmotherly concern. Seniors reminded the pupils to drink water to stay hydrated, or asked for wet wipes so they could clean off the paint from the pupils’ hands.
Ms Nikki Goh, Associate Psychologist at AHL, shared, “One senior, who is usually more reserved, was more open and enthusiastic. He volunteered to arrange the flowers at the Floral Bar, which shows that he was well-engaged and enjoying the activity. Therapeutic horticulture has a lot to offer to both our seniors and the pupils. We hope to plan more sessions for both them to enjoy the valuable sensory and tactile experience, and connect with nature.”