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A unique bond between kindy kids and aged care residents in the NSW Hunter region has culminated in a heart-warming musical meeting after months of written letters back and forth during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Facilitated by the University of Newcastle’s Occupational Therapy (OT) program, kindergarten students from Edgeworth Heights Public School and aged care residents from Calvary Nazareth Retirement Community at Belmont were connected for a pen pal program to combat the effects of social isolation during the pandemic.

“As the world raced to lock down in response to COVID, the detrimental impact on school- aged children and those in aged care facilities became abundantly clear to us,” said University of Newcastle Lecturer in Occupational Therapy and program facilitator, Dr Kylie Wales.

“We know that social isolation promotes dementia, lethargy and an array of other adverse health issues in older people. Home-schooling was also proving a challenge for young people learning without interaction with teachers and other students.”

Harnessing the University’s unique position in the local community, Dr Wales said her team set out to facilitate a mutually beneficial intergenerational program.

“With any unprecedented disruption, communities begin looking to their civic leaders for advice and guidance. That’s the role we felt we could play for our partners,” Dr Wales said.

“As we offer occupational therapy clinics at both primary schools and Calvary aged care facilities locally, we knew the opportunity to connect the two cohorts during isolation was a great way to use our position to support our community.”

In occupational therapy, ‘occupations’ refer to the everyday activities undertaken as part of daily life.

“The occupation identified for the school children was reading, writing and spelling. For the aged care residents, it was recall and cognitive function. Letter writing was the perfect way to facilitate these tasks, especially from the confines of lockdown.”

Edgeworth Heights Public School classroom teacher, Ms Vanessa Armstrong, said the result has a been a beautiful connection and intergenerational learning between kindergarteners and their elderly pen pals.

“Some of the kids don’t have grandparents or older members of their family to talk to, so the integrational learning element has been priceless for them. They tell stories to one another and discuss their likes and dislikes.

“We’ve seen some really lovely friendships form over the past months,” Ms Armstrong said.

As a culmination of their efforts over the term, the two groups are meeting for the first time in the virtual world.

“The kindergarteners have been asking to meet their pen pals ever since we began the program, and we’re excited to finally introduce them,” Ms Armstrong said.

“We’ll be performing a rendition of I Can Sing a Rainbow – complete with Auslan signing – to be played to the aged care residents, who will respond with their own performance.”

With glowing feedback from all parties, Ms Armstrong said she hoped to her school’s relationship with the University continued to provide unique opportunities moving forward.

“I’ve watched the kids not only upskill in their academic skills, but also develop their social understanding and compassion – it’s been a delight,” Ms Armstrong said.

“We’re so thrilled that our connection with the University of Newcastle provided us with the chance to take part in this unique program. It’s been a joy for the penpals, but also reassuring for us that our kids are still reaching milestones during such a difficult time.”

Letters from kindy students