This is a story that was published in the August 2017 edition of Edmonton Prime Times. The editor was Maurice Tougas.
In the summer of 2015, GEF Seniors Housing opened Ottewell Terrace, welcoming more than 50 seniors to their new homes and over 70 children. On the main level of Ottewell Terrace, Primrose Place Family Centre, one of Edmonton’s oldest not-for-profit daycare centres, found its new permanent home. A staple in the East Edmonton community, Primrose Place Family Centre approached GEF Seniors Housing with the idea of building a day care in Ottewell Terrace.
Next door to Ottewell Terrace are two other GEF Seniors Housing buildings: Ottewell Manor and Ottewell Place. Where Ottewell Terrace is a completely independent living apartment, Ottewell Manor and Ottewell Place both offer lodge accommodations, which means a full recreation program for the residents. GEF Seniors Housing CEO Raymond Swonek points out that it didn’t take long to make the connection between the lodge’s recreation programs and the operations at the daycare centre.
“In no time, the residents at Ottewell Place and Ottewell Manor were interacting with the children,” says Swonek. “The residents love reading to the children, taking part in arts and crafts, and just spending time with them.”
Intergenerational recreation is a trend that is picking up. More seniors associations and youth organizations are teaming up with the intent of providing meaningful connections for the populations they serve. The science and research behind intergenerational recreation programs brings up many interesting benefits.
The benefits for the children involved with intergenerational recreation include improved academic skills, better social skills, decreases in negative behaviours, and increases in social stability. Children see an increase in self-esteem, problem solving skills, and an appreciation for seniors and aging when involved with these kinds of programs.
Where the benefits for the children revolve around their development, the benefits for seniors focus on their continued health. A 2004 study in the Journal of Urban Health shows that seniors burn 20 per cent more calories per week, experienced fewer falls, were less dependent on canes and other walking aides, and had better cognitive skills. Another study from 2003 in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and other Dimentias showed that older adults with dementia or other cognitive impairments saw significant improvements in their overall mental health during interactions with children.
The social and health benefits of intergenerational programs do not surprise Shelley Sabo, Community Animator with Sage Seniors Association. Her work on Sage’s Age-ing to Sage-ing program brought together seniors and youth in Edmonton’s Beverly neighbourhood. Activities included gardening with the Little Green Thumbs program, knitting and crocheting, organizing a back-logged school library, relaxation exercises, and helping out at school events.
“Seniors have so many gifts to share with the community and it is only a gift if it is given,” says Sabo. “This project created an opportunity for many seniors to share their gifts with their community and develop some caring relationships that benefitted both the seniors and the youth.”
Age-ing to Sage-ing focused its efforts in the Beverly neighbourhood because there are a high number of seniors and children who would greatly benefit from their company. Sage’s report on Age-ing to Sage-ing points out that some of Edmonton’s diverse neighbourhoods tend to have pressing social needs among seniors and youth including poverty, multicultural and intergenerational conflict, and declining community spaces. With a focus on recognizing that seniors have many talents, skills, and gifts they can share, Sage wanted seniors to realize that they still had so much to contribute to their communities, which was a new concept to many of the seniors who participated.
“The Beverly neighbourhood has so many strengths and it is important to keep their seniors in the community,” says Sabo. “One of the seniors involved with Age-ing to Sage-ing actually contacted Schoolboard Trustee Ray Martin and started a community conversation about turning the old Rundle School into a new intergenerational community centre. At the two community conversations hosted by the Edmonton Public School Board, more than 130 people turned out at each event to share their ideas.”
The seniors in the Beverly neighbourhood also saw some connection from the Abbottsfield Youth Project with the Love Grows Here program, which paired elementary school children with seniors living at Porta Place apartments and the Beverly Place lodge on an art project. The art piece was created over five sessions between the students and the seniors and saw a gala-style unveiling for the community on December 1, 2016.
Sabo sees the intergenerational programs all over Edmonton as much more than something to help keep seniors busy. At the core of every one of the programs has been the community connection that drives people to give something more.
“I remember one senior who was suffering from depression and she decided to take part in Age-ing to Sage-ing,” says Sabo. “For her, there was nothing better than going three blocks to her neighbourhood school where she had an opportunity to give something back.”
For more than 10 years, GEF Seniors Housing has partnered with the Terra Centre, a not-for-profit association dedicated to providing supports to teen parents while they finish their education and plan for the future. The children who attend the Terra Centre’s Child and Family Support Centre program visit Ottewell Place for intergenerational programming that benefits both the seniors living at the lodge and the children with the Terra Centre. One child in particular has become a strong example of the benefits of intergenerational programming.
“We know that consistent and familiar relationships and routines are important to Skyler’s development and learning,” explain representatives from the Terra Centre in a story they wrote and published called At the Lodge with Skyler, which chronicles a typical day for three-year-old Skyler when he visits Ottewell Place. “This familiarity contributes to his sense of security and attachment, which is his emotional well-being, positive self-identity, and a sense of belonging.”
Skyler’s visits to Ottewell Place include everything from watching the pet birds at the lodge and spending time with the residents to more creative activities like playing the piano and singing for the residents and other children. The Terra Centre’s story on Skyler highlights Skyler’s especially strong interest and immediate attraction to music as a good avenue for further development.
“Many have noticed that Skyler seems to have an interest in music and singing, particularly the piano,” the story outlines. “Bringing musical instruments into the playroom as well as making musical instruments can help support him further.
The development that the Terra Centre is observing in Skyler demonstrates the clear benefits of intergenerational programming. The benefits for the children involved with intergenerational recreation include improved academic skills, better social skills, decreases in negative behaviours, and increases in social stability. Children see an increase in self-esteem, problem solving skills, and an appreciation for seniors and aging when involved with these kinds of programs.
GEF Seniors Housing’s has explored intergenerational programming with other community partners. Beverly Place saw a strong partnership with the Abbottsfield Youth Project with the Love Grows Here art project. Ottewell Terrace remains the home for the Primrose Place Family Centre daycare, where the children often visit the residents living at Ottewell Manor. For GEF Seniors Housing, the benefits of intergenerational programming to the children are important, but the mental and physical health benefits to the seniors are something to take note.
A 2004 study in the Journal of Urban Health shows that seniors involved with intergenerational recreation programming burn 20 per cent more calories per week, experienced fewer falls, were less dependent on canes and other walking aides, and had better cognitive skills. Another study from 2003 in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and other Dementias showed that older adults with dementia or other cognitive impairments saw significant improvements in their overall mental health during interactions with children.
“The science is clear when it comes to intergenerational programming,” says GEF Seniors Housing CEO Raymond Swonek. “It’s a trend that we’re seeing pick up all across Canada and that makes me really happy. It means more people are listening to the facts, seeing the same positive outcomes that we’re seeing, helping more people have a good quality of life. I hope we get to see more partnerships blossom like the ones we have with the Terra Centre and the Primrose Place Family Centre so even more children and seniors can gain from the benefits of intergenerational programming.”
Every year, members of knitting clubs based in GEF Seniors Housing buildings donate thousands of pieces of winter outdoor wear to local charities at an event that’s become known as the Great Knitting Giveaway. All the yarn used was donated to the knitting clubs throughout the year at the more than 40 buildings that GEF Seniors Housing currently owns or manages. The winter clothing given out ranges from toques to mittens to scarfs and even includes pieces for kids and newborns.
“This is an opportunity for the seniors to give back to their communities,” says Emily Rotella, Assistant Manager with Pleasantview Place and former Chair of the Great Knitting Giveaway event. “The people who receive the items our knitters donated doesn’t just give them warmth on the outside for the cold months, but warmth on the inside too knowing that someone cares enough to hand make a toque or a scarf that’s going to help them.”
The event itself is a thank you to the knitters who made the clothing that was donated and features speakers from the charities receiving the items, telling the seniors about the kinds of people their contributions are going on to help. Charities that collect the winter clothing include the Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, Operation Friendship Seniors Society, schools in low-income areas such as St. Benedict Catholic School, and the Royal Alexandra Hospital maternity ward.
“A lot of the seniors don’t think their donations are a big deal,” Rotella says. “But, [for example], they’re giving a baby her first toque and that family is going to treasure it for their whole lives.”
The knitters meet year-round as part of their recreation programs to make the winter clothing that is eventually donated. The seniors are given new knitting patterns to continually challenge them and keep the activity interesting. For many seniors, the knitting clubs are a chance to socialize and remain close to others living in their buildings. But for some, it’s what gives them a purpose to their lives.
“We have some knitters who never went to school and never learned to read,” says Rotella. “So knitting is what they can contribute to the world and it’s how they know they can help others.”
For Rotella, the Great Knitting Giveaway is an opportunity not just to show the knitting clubs from GEF Seniors Housing an appreciation for everything they do throughout the year, but also demonstrate that what would be something to pass the time for many is actually making a huge difference in Edmonton communities.
“We participated in an event at St. Benedict Catholic School where some of our seniors read to the kids and we asked how many received winter clothing from the Great Knitting Giveaway and almost all of the hands went up,” Rotella says. “That was a moment when some of our seniors realized how much of a difference their donations made. These are kids who would have gone the winter without mittens or toques and the kindness of a few knitters made sure these kids stayed warm during the winter.”
Ruby Gibeault has spent the past 12 years living at Porta Place apartments in Edmonton’s Beverly Heights neighbourhood. She made the choice to move out of her house near Commonwealth Stadium and was immediately drawn to the community around her new apartment. If you ask her what she thinks of the East end area she calls home, she’ll smile wide as she tells you about the community she’s grown into.
“It’s like a little village,” says Gibeault. “It feels very senior friendly and you can walk pretty well anywhere. There’s a park just a block away that I spend a lot of time at when I’m out walking. I think most of the seniors who live in this area feel that connection to the community.”
That community connection grew when the Abbotsfield Youth Project approached the Beverly Lodge with GEF Seniors Housing and the connected Porta Place apartments to be part of Love Grows Here. The initiative sees elementary school aged kids from the North East Edmonton communities work with seniors on an art project that expresses what they think about their neighbourhood. Rebecca Prentice, another tenant with Porta Place apartments who took part in Love Grows Here, explains that having the opportunity to interact with the kids brought a whole different energy to her day.
“There were barely any quiet moments while we were all working together,” says Prentice. “We were constantly talking and throwing around ideas and trying different things. In the end, all of the ideas came together.”
The final project that came together was a tree with a different kind of artwork on each branch. The kids each painted something that represented what they thought of their neighbourhood. Some of the seniors were nervous about trying their artistic skills, so they used a little bit of creative ingenuity to express themselves.
“I found some old magazines and clipped out the pictures and I painted around that,” says Prentice. “We all did something different to express what the Beverly neighbourhood means to us.”
Jean Charchuk, who lives in Beverly Lodge, wrote a poem that reflects her regular walks through the neighbourhood. She explains that she had cousins who lived in the area while she was growing up, so she always had a connection to the neighbourhood. “I’ll walk through Beverly, into Rundle Park, and down to the river,” says Charchuk. “I see a lot of things when I take these walks.”
Audrey Weir, who also lives at Porta Place apartments, painted trees and a long roadway. “It’s a memory from walking along Ada Boulevard,” says Weir, who moved into Edmonton’s North East corner in the mid-1950s. “I remembered how the trees hung over the road.”
One of the most surprising things the ladies learned was how interesting they found the kids. The mix of generations helped everyone involved learn to appreciate each other more, learning that everyone has something to give. Prentice fondly remembers the ice-breaker game they played when they all first met. They each had to put a fact about themselves into a hat, then the facilitator would draw each fact one by one and the room has to guess who the fact belonged to.
“I think all generations need to mix,” says Prentice. “For a lot of people, they don’t get to see their grandkids, or the kids don’t get to see their grandparents. Programs like Love Grows Here help fill that void.”
After the five sessions, the final art piece was unveiled at the Abbotsfield Youth Project Society office on December 1, 2016. Since then, the piece has moved around to some of the schools in the area, to the Suncor offices (who sponsored the project), and is set to arrive back to Beverly Lodge later in 2017.
For Weir, as much as she loved creating for the final piece, she found that watching the kids create to be most intriguing. She says that to see the kids put a glob of paint on their brushes and stare off into space as they created something was really fascinating.
“I have grandkids and I’ll sometimes just sit back and watch and listen,” says Weir. “That’s when you get to see them for the people they are. I did the same with the kids while they painted and that was fun.”
Charchuk explains that she gravitated towards one of the older boys taking part in the project. She says that she noticed he was quiet and seemed to be almost daydreaming, which reminded her of herself at that same age. As the two connected, she learned how artistically talented he was and it helped to inspire her.
“I watched him draw and I remember thinking that he can really translate what he has in his head onto the canvas,” Charchuk says. “After the project, he and some of the other kids wrote me a letter to say thank you and I cried while I read it. It was such a nice letter and it meant so much to me.”