HEALTH BEAT

Lasting memories

Students and seniors collaborate on scrapbook project

Students and a senior woman.
Students Zyn Al-Ali (left) and Nick Pizarro chat with resident Mary Coughlin.

BY SHARON CHISVIN
Winnipeg Health Region Wave,
March / April 2017

As 81-year-old Andrew Kehler settles into his comfy chair in his main floor suite at Harmony Court on a recent winter morning, his two guests lean toward him and gently begin peppering him with questions.

Where did you grow up? Did you have brothers or sisters? What was your favourite holiday?

Kehler’s guests, Mirza Nazri and Ishe Matanga, are not just being nosy.

Rather, the two Grade 9 students from Henry G. Izatt School in the Winnipeg neighbourhood of Whyte Ridge are seeking answers to help them pull together a scrapbook of Kehler’s memories.

In fact, they are among a group of 25 students carrying out interviews with other residents on this morning, all with the goal of producing scrapbooks that reflect the lives of the individuals in question.

It’s all part of an intergenerational social engagement project organized by the school and Harmony Court, which is a supportive housing residence located in the Riverwood Square complex on Pembina Highway.

“We provide the residents of Harmony Court with every service and support we possibly can,” says Riverwood Square manager Linda Sherrin. “This includes meals, housekeeping, cueing and reminders to help them with active living, but the biggest piece by far is social engagement.”

Much of that social engagement comes from Riverwood’s burgeoning relationship with Henry G. Izatt, which is part of the Pembina Trails School Division.

Over the last four years, students from the middle school have regularly visited the residence for holiday celebrations and various other programming. Students and seniors have danced together in Zumba classes, written and performed songs together, and even curated personalized iPod music playlists together.

“Research has demonstrated that social engagement is the key to healthy living, and intergenerational interaction has an even more dramatic effect,” says Jan Legeros, Executive Director of the Manitoba Long Term and Continuing Care Association.

“Intergenerational programming helps create lasting memories for both students and the residents,” she adds. “The students learn friendship and respect. Most of all, they learn how seniors and students can contribute to each other’s well-being.”

The scrapbook project, entitled His Story – Her Story, is the latest project between the seniors and the school.

Launched in December 2016, the project involves students meeting with selected residents every couple of weeks, interviewing them about their lives, and creating personalized scrapbooks for them that reflect those lives. Most of the seniors participating in the project are compromised by early-stage dementia. All of the students volunteering with the program participated in a special course that taught them the basics about dementia.

Resident Andrew Kehler chats with student Ishe Matanga.

Although Kehler does not remember meeting his student interviewers a few weeks earlier, he welcomes their company and their inquiries. The questions, prepared in advance by Riverwood’s Health and Wellness Director Shannon Gaulke, are specifically designed to twig memory in the seniors while providing the students with inspiration and ideas for their scrapbooks.

Nazri and Matanga take turns quietly asking the questions, and respectfully and patiently wait while Kehler tries to conjure up images and names in response.

“Holy dynamite,” he says, when Nazri asks him if he can remember his first car. It takes him a few minutes, but with gentle prodding he eventually comes up with the answer.
“It was a ‘48 Chevy,” he says. “A kind of brown or tan colour.”

Upstairs in her fourth-floor suite, 82-year-old Mary Coughlin is attempting to answer similar questions from her interviewers.

“My memory is not very good,” she tells Zyn Al-Ali and Nick Pizarro apologetically. “One of the things that happened to me is I can’t remember things too well.”

But Al-Ali and Pizarro are both encouraging and empathetic, and tell her that she is doing a great job. A question about her past participation in sports eventually leads to a discussion about the Winnipeg Jets, and Mary tells them that she is a big fan and watches all of the games on television.

Although almost seven decades separate the students and seniors in this project, none of the students appear ill at ease with their elderly counterparts. In the course of their interviews, young and old laugh together, joke together and occasionally shed a tear together. It is obvious that both the teenagers and the seniors are enjoying and benefitting from the interaction.

“I volunteered for this program because I wanted to work with older people,” Nazri says.
“The program is good for me,” she adds candidly, “because sometimes I am too open and talk too much about myself. This makes me focus on another person.”

Nazri’s impressive self-awareness and interest in the elderly is shared among her classmates. “I have two grandmothers who live with me,” says Haaroon Kinnarath, “so this felt like a good thing to do. “And,” he adds, “I love talking to people.”

Henry G. Izatt Principal Peggy Hobson says that her school’s partnership with Riverwood benefits her students in numerous ways.

“The opportunity to have a significant partnership with a seniors’ residence provides so many links with curricular areas,” she says, “but most importantly, it provides another avenue for our students to develop relationships and learn with others in a very meaningful way.”

Similarly, Linda Sherrin sees the benefits that her residents accrue from their interaction with the students.

“We actually see changes in both behaviours and outlook,” she says. “A very reserved, quiet person will be visually happier, and for some folks who may be depressed and anxious, the engagement provides relief and refocus.”  

The seniors very much enjoy the conversations, the storytelling and engagement, she adds. They are always glad to see the students and always ask when they will be coming back.

Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer.

Wave: January / February, 2017

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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