Pairing children with elderly Australians at organised events is usually targeted at alleviating loneliness for the aged community, but a researcher says young people can also develop key skills to improve their own lives.

Students from Norton Summit Primary School have been making monthly visits to the Summit Community Centre in the Adelaide Hills for two-and-a-half years, where they volunteer to serve lunch for the elderly.

Principal Shaun Barber organised to bring students to the lunch, where they also spent time chatting with seniors, so they could look beyond the “four walls of our school” and grow an appreciation for the wider community. 

Fostering a sense of ‘identity’

Flinders University social work lecturer Ben Lohmeyer said the connections people made early in life had a “profound impact on the rest of their life”.

Dr Ben Lohmeyer says connecting young people with older people to develop safe and meaningful relationships has mutual benefit.(Supplied: Ben Lohmeyer)

“Adults who show they care and listen to young people can play an important role in providing a sense of safety, security, and identity,” Dr Lohmeyer said.

Sophia from year 6 said she had been learning a lot of social skills, and it was “fun to talk to other elderly people and have conversations”.

“I’ve met one lady who came to our school and she used to tell stories about all the teachers that had been there. It was really nice.”

Sophia is a year 6 student and has been visiting the community centre for three years.(BTN High: Che Chorley)

Ashton, another year 6 student, said conversations could include serious topics such as “all this stuff in the news” and contemporary issues the children were facing.

“I was talking with people about the [proposed South Australian] social media ban from [those aged] 13 out, and about your parent guardians taking responsibility for that,” he said.

“I reckon it’s a pretty good idea. Some people think that as well because some people might see a lot of this inappropriate stuff on Snapchat, Instagram.”

Gordon Trestrail, 87, attends the cafe where the students volunteer.(BTN High: Che Chorley)

Cafe customer Gordon Trestrail said the Karra Watta Cafe Community Lunch gave the children the experience of “mingling” with people.

“It gives them something to do, and I’ll bet every one of them liked being here rather than school,” he said.

A two-way street

While initiatives like the community lunch were originally established to tackle loneliness among older people, Dr Lohmeyer said it went both ways.

“Often we think of the elderly and retirees as lonely, but in Australia, statistically, younger people are more likely to be lonely,” he said.

This was particularly the case during pandemic lockdowns in 2021 when the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reported 22 per cent of people aged between 15 and 24 were experiencing social isolation compared with 13 per cent of those aged 65 and over.

The 15-to-24 age bracket was the loneliest during 2021 pandemic restrictions.(ABC News: Erin Parke)

By 2022, isolation levels for the 15–24 bracket had marginally improved at 21 per cent compared with 11 per cent for those 65 and over.

The 35–44 age bracket increased in 2021 to 2022 from 16 per cent to 17 per cent.

“Loneliness among older people might be a result of lacking social connections,” Dr Lohmeyer said.

“For young people, it can be the presence of unwanted connections, like bullies in school.

“Familiar neighbourhoods, schools, and recreational spaces are important for providing young people with a sense of connection and preventing loneliness, but just as important is the nature of the relationships in these spaces.”

The Karra Watta Cafe Community Lunch occurs once a month.(BTN High: Che Chorley)

Volunteering to ‘give back’

For the children, the Karra Watta Cafe is also about volunteering and learning how to work.

Paige, a year 6 student, helps with the clean-up after lunch.(BTN High: Che Chorley)

Year 6 student Paige explains the day starts with setting up the tables and chairs, then the tablecloths and “plates and cutlery and everything”.

“I think it’s really important for our age to be volunteering because so many of the other generations help out and we should give back to them,” she said.

“It’s really fun, a good way to hang out with our friends, and plus we get some extra food on the side of it.

“We just talk about where we’re from and the stories that happened, and they usually talk to us about what it was like in their time and how much different it is from now.”

The volunteer students also get to eat during the community lunch.(BTN High: Che Chorley)

Cafe customer Heather Webb said volunteering was an “excellent” initiative for young people.

“When you go to look for even a part-time job, on your resume, and if you haven’t had the opportunity to work for money, at least if you put down your volunteering opportunities, or things you do in your spare time. That really counts,” she said.

“It gives people a lot of skills, people skills, time management skills.”

Heather Webb has visited the cafe since its launch several years before the school came on board.(BTN High: Che Chorley)

Ms Webb also enjoyed her interactions with the young volunteers.

“I think, for some of them, it’s quite challenging to have an adult or an older adult they don’t know speak to them and ask them questions,” she said.

“It keeps your brain active when you’re talking to younger people.

“And you notice the differences from when we were growing up to what it’s like for young people growing up today.”

Sue MacGregor and Sandy MacGregor are the event’s organisers.(BTN High: Che Chorley)

Dr Lohmeyer said meaningful social connections were very important at all stages of life, and there was increasing evidence of the association between loneliness and mental health issues, sleep, stress, cardiovascular disease, reduced physical activity, and premature mortality.

“Connecting young people with older people to develop safe and meaningful relationships has huge potential for mutual benefit,” he said.

“More meaningful social connections make a happier and healthier society.”