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Mental Health

A Gateway to Intergenerational Connection

University students and seniors forge friendships and lifelong learning at Gateway Lodge in Prince George

Sonya Kruger

Visions Journal, 2019, 14 (4), pp. 33-35

How can intergenerational living benefit university students and seniors? As part of an innovative pilot study and new experiential learning course this past fall, two students from the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) spent four months living in Northern Health’s Gateway Lodge, a residential care facility in Prince George, BC. There, they spent time engaging with and learning from Gateway residents.

The success of the pilot led to its continuation for the Winter 2019 semester.

Led by UNBC's Dr. Shannon Freeman and Professor Dawn Hemingway, the Intergenerational Activities for Growth and Engagement project (InterAGE) is a unique research partnership between UNBC and Northern Health. Through InterAGE, students live at Gateway Lodge full-time, while still taking other university courses as part of their regular semester. The students spend part of each week over the four-month period connecting with the lodge's residents during meals and different recreational events.

The project is one of the first of its kind in BC to focus on intergenerational cohousing from a research perspective. Freeman and Hemingway, together with their UNBC research team, have developed a comprehensive research and evaluation plan to measure the project's outcomes from multiple perspectives—including those of residents, students and the Gateway facility—through the collection of information from all those involved in the initiative.

"The pilot study with the UNBC students and residents of Gateway exceeded all of our expectations," enthused Freeman, an assistant professor in the School of Nursing at UNBC, in an interview with the author. "The UNBC special topics course is taught on-site at the Gateway Lodge and attended by the UNBC students, residents, staff and members of the community. It has challenged the students to be reflective and to see aging not only through their own eyes but through the eyes of the residents that they ended up developing close connections with."

Hemingway, an associate professor and chair of the School of Social Work at UNBC, added, "From the residents' perspective, we saw people engaged who had not regularly joined facility activities previously, and we also had a higher number of residents than we expected regularly attending and participating in our class."

Student participants are provided with accommodation at Gateway Lodge for the school semester, living in areas that are not allocated for resident use. Over the semester, they also receive several complimentary meal tickets per month. During a typical week, students spend 10 to 15 hours meeting residents and enjoying activities together—such as playing bocce ball, knitting, playing crib or dominoes and sharing stories.

Chantelle Jimenez, a fourth-year nursing student who was part of the Fall 2018 pilot, spoke positively about her experience. "I didn't think it would be that easy to fit right in,” she said. "But it was a very comfortable transition. We made friends the second we walked through the door. We didn't expect to make such a change in their lives. We gave them time to be present and they were very open and friendly, sharing many memories with us. I also learned a lot of practical things, such as how to knit and sew.

"I enjoyed hearing about the stories from the war. I'd never met anyone previously who had lived through World War II. One of the residents was a Red Cross nurse in the war and, as a nursing student, it was so nice to find someone in the same profession. We talked about how she had grown as a nurse, what my current studies were like, how practice has changed, and she shared some great advice with me."

As part of the project, students were assigned several resident "buddies," whom they sought to connect with regularly. This intermingling with residents throughout the facility led to many other meaningful connections as well.

Chandler Blokland, a fourth-year psychology student who was also part of the fall pilot, remarked thoughtfully, "It gave me a firsthand look into the lives of elderly residents, and understanding how we age, as well as the level of care we receive when we age, which provided some great insights into my aspirations for a future career in medicine. The experience of living there was unbelievable. With the residents, they love you and they take you in as one of the family.

"Some of my more memorable visits were with a resident who did not have a lot of family and was very lonely. Whenever I stopped in their room, they were so happy that someone had come to visit and chat. Every time I showed up, I made their day and they made mine."

Jason Jaswal, Director of Long Term Care and Support Services with Northern Health in Prince George, has also found the InterAGE project to be a positive addition to Gateway Lodge's program. "There have been many wonderful activities enjoyed and relationships forged throughout this project, which has enriched the quality of life for all our participants," he observed. "One aspect that I think is really important is that the students also experienced some uncomfortable moments and interactions that come with residing in a care home, which can be a lonely place and socially isolating.

"You also have to say goodbye to friends and neighbours that pass away, which causes sadness and heavy hearts. I believe that this experience is going to serve the participating students well as they move on to their future ventures."

Hemingway clearly agrees. "The experience all around has been very positive, and is a reminder that older adults have as much life experience and expertise to share with young people as students have to share with seniors. The research component was also critical and will allow us to move forward with further cohousing initiatives knowing we’re on solid footing."

Freeman adds, "Overall, it's been an exciting and forward-looking undertaking that I feel certain will improve the lives of both the students and the residents in ways that we have yet to identify."

Freeman, Hemingway, Gateway Lodge and Northern Health are excited about the potential for the InterAGE project to improve seniors' health and quality of life in northern BC—but also across Canada and beyond.

Freeman explains, "While different models of this type of living arrangement have been practised elsewhere in the world over the past two decades, to date, we have found only anecdotal results of the benefits. We are aiming to critically demonstrate, through our research, the value of this kind of initiative."

Hemingway adds a final note about the project's broader implications: "Indeed, this project, which is already recruiting students for the 2019-2020 school year, not only opens the door to the possibility for other types of intergenerational housing in existing supported housing locations within communities, but also for the planning of future housing needs among university students and older adults alike."

 
About the author

Sonya is a communications officer with the University of Northern British Columbia. Born and raised in northern BC, she has more than 15 years of communications experience in health care and education. In her spare time, Sonya enjoys reading, collecting records and testing out new recipes from around the globe

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