Songs & Smiles: Baby and toddler play dates with the elderly

Songs and Smiles

By Kerry Law

If you loved Channel 4’s heart-warming documentary ‘Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds’ (broadcast in 2017 but well worth watching on 4OD catch-up), there’s a real-life equivalent where you and your littles ones can get involved.

Songs & Smiles, an initiative run by charity The Together Project, is your regular baby and toddler music and singing session, but run in an elderly care or retirement home with the residents joining in. The idea is so simple, yet can have a big impact.

Bringing different generations together can enhance life for both old and young. It helps little ones see the aging process and disability as a normal part of life, and the older generation enjoys meeting the children, particularly if they don’t see many visitors, let alone young ones. This isn’t just about joining another baby and toddler group—this is giving back to your community by helping to reduce loneliness and social isolation among the elderly.

My one-year-old and I joined the Songs & Smiles session at St Ives Lodge, an elderly care home in Chingford, northeast London. With little ones on mats with toys in the middle of the room, we were joined by around a dozen residents ready to sing and play percussion together. Many of the songs are classic nursery rhymes, old favourites and music hall ditties (‘Daisy, Daisy’, ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’) that everyone will know. It has been suggested that those living with dementia and poor short-term memory tend to have a better long-term memory and may even show cognitive improvement when hearing music from their own childhood. The session is relaxed and informal with young and old joining in as much or as little as they feel like.

The majority of the session is all about the music, with the final 15 minutes a chance to mingle over refreshments. Parents and guardians should remember that many residents may find conversation and interaction challenging—some adults, let alone children, may not be used to talking to someone with dementia. Thankfully, The Together Project has a reassuring guide on their website on what to expect and how to break the ice when meeting and greeting residents with your children. Don’t forget, some residents may remember when they were new parents and have a couple of evergreen tips!

I was prepared for the singing, the action songs, the scarves and shakers of a typical baby/toddler session, but what I wasn’t prepared for was the emotional punch—seeing an older person and a little one smiling together and singing ‘Over the Rainbow’ in a shower of bubbles can bring a lump to the throat.

Songs & Smiles currently runs in northeast/east London including Walthamstow, Leyton, Chingford and Forest Gate. The project has been running for just over a year but more launches are planned for the coming months (check the website for latest sessions).

Sessions cost £1 per adult and child (additional children and adults cost 50p each), which includes refreshments. There is no need to book a whole term; you can pay as you go, but it’s worth registering your interest in joining a session by emailing songs@thetogetherproject.co.uk. Full details can be found at www.thetogetherproject.co.uk.