Students and seniors forge friendships and learning at Gateway Lodge

May 3, 2019
Shannon Freeman (left) and Dawn Hemingway

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 UNBC students spent four months living in Northern Health’s Gateway Lodge, a residential care facility in Prince George, engaging with and learning from the lodge’s residents. 

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

Led by UNBC’s Dr. Shannon Freeman and Prof. Dawn Hemingway, the Intergenerational Activities for Growth and Engagement (InterAGE) project is a unique research partnership between UNBC and Northern Health. Students spend part of each week over the course of their four-month semester connecting with the lodge’s residents during meals and different recreational events.

“The fall pilot with the UNBC students and residents of Gateway exceeded all of our expectations,” explained Dr. Shannon Freeman, assistant professor, School of Nursing, UNBC. “The UNBC special topics course, taught on-site at Gateway Lodge, 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.”

“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,” said Prof. Dawn Hemingway, associate professor and Chair, Social Work, UNBC. "Our class was also attended by family members of the residents, Gateway Lodge staff, and members of the community.”

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

“Most surprising for me was the amount of social energy that most residents had, even those who at first appeared quiet and reserved. It didn’t take much for them to open up,” noted Zachary Fleck, a third-year International Studies student who participated in the project during the recent winter school semester. “The residents have absolutely loved to tell their life stories and relate their experiences to me.  And I also enjoyed the opportunity to share my stories with them.

“I think that young people make unique conversational catalysts in this way. There is something exciting about relating stories across intergenerational divides for all involved. I think the more opportunity we give young people to have these experiences, the more they would see the value in intergenerational interactions.”

“I didn’t think it would be that easy to fit right in, but it was a very comfortable transition. We made friends the second we walked through the door,” said Chantelle Jimenez, a fourth-year Nursing student who was part of the fall semester pilot. “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” who they sought to connect with regularly. However, their intermingling throughout the facility led to many other meaningful connections as well.

“It gave me a first-hand 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,” explained Chandler Blokland, a fourth-year Psychology student who was also part of the pilot last fall. “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.”

“There have been many wonderful activities enjoyed and relationships forged throughout this project, which has enriched the quality of life for all our participants.” said Jason Jaswal, Director, Long Term Care and Support Services – Prince George, Northern Health. “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.”

“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,” said Prof. Dawn Hemingway. “The research component was also critical and will allow us to move forward with further co-housing initiatives knowing we’re on solid footing. 

“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,” added Dr. Freeman. “We are looking forward to recruiting our next students for the 2019-2020 school year.”

The InterAge research project is one of the first of its kind in B.C. to compile evidence-based results on intergenerational living, as well as one of the first in the country.

Dr. Freeman and Prof. Hemingway are excited about the potential outcomes to not only improve senior health and quality of life in northern B.C. but also across Canada and beyond.