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Intergenerational programs can contribute to the well-being of individuals and communities

It’s hard to think of anyone who knows more than a grandparent. That might seem like common sense, but common sense doesn’t always translate into good social policy. Sometimes, though, policy can catch up. And it’s starting to here in Canada when it comes to supporting intergenerational learning.

Sharing knowledge and experiences between young and old is accepted practice in many cultures — particularly in China, in Eastern European countries and among North American indigenous peoples — but it’s slow to become a part of mainstream culture. For instance, it took until 2010 for the first Canadian jurisdiction to formally recognize Intergenerational Day Canada on June 1. Since then, seven provinces or territories and more than 100 cities have followed suit.

Formally recognizing this day is a significant milestone in a journey that dates back to the formation of the i2i Intergenerational Society of Canada in 2008. Founded by educator Sharon MacKenzie, i2i reflects the work she pursued within the B.C. school system for 30 years, which included the formation of the seminal Meadows School Project in Vernon, B.C., in 2000.

The subject of a documentary film, Whose Grandma Are You?, the Meadows School Project connected students in grades 1-12 with residents of a seniors residence and resulted in measurable benefits in the mental, physical and social health of those involved.

As outlined in the film by Jim Elderton, what the students thought would be a dull, dutiful visit to unresponsive seniors turned into a highly interactive curriculum of intergenerational exchanges. The results reflected the findings of a 2005 University of Calgary research project that summarized:

“Intergenerational programs can contribute to the well-being of individuals and communities… by facilitating mutually beneficial relationships; volunteering and community building; increasing social cohesion; integration and collaboration; and strengthening family relationships.”

Similar programs — both formal and informal — exist throughout the country. For example, the Calgary-based LINKages Society of Alberta has worked since 1994 to create “innovative intergenerational programs and services that encourage involvement, transfer of knowledge, and capitalize on the strengths of youth and seniors to foster strong Alberta communities.” In Brantford, Ontario, the Seniors and Kids Intergenerational Programs bring old and young together through class trips to residences and virtual visits through streaming video. In Quebec, the Community Learning Centre Initiative has developed community learning centres in every anglophone school board, with the mission to offer recreational, educational, social, and cultural opportunities for students, families and the community. The network is over 500 partners-strong and supports well over 1,500 activities — from cooking and language classes to badminton and yoga. Meanwhile, across the Northwest Territories, more than 500 young people and 330 seniors are involved in programs in towns and hamlets like Fort Smith, Hay River, N’Dilo and Dettah.

If one aspect of intergenerational learning remains conspicuously absent in Canada, it’s coordination. While details of individual programs are evident, Canada lacks a central coordinating body akin to the Washington, D.C.-based Generations United. The non-profit maintains a database of some 500 intergenerational programs, spread across all 50 states, and coordinates an awards program that has recognized 24 U.S. communities that embrace intergenerational solutions to “serve, empower and engage residents of all ages.”

So, while Canada is making headway, there’s still room for wisdom to flow between young and old.

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