It seems that in today’s world spoken words and face-to-face encounters are becoming less and less frequent. We are often greeted with computer generated recordings, keep in touch with those we love through e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter, and rarely need to leave the comforts of our living rooms to accomplish most of our daily tasks. Where technology has frequently stepped in and eliminated the need for meaningful human interaction, one might wonder how people will connect and communicate in the future. Will relationships enriched by the feeling and texture of face-to-face contact become as invisible as the wireless networks floating all around us?
It was with this outlook on life, and living education, that in 2001 Sharon created what is now the highly successful and highly acclaimed Meadows School Project™. The idea for this pilot project stemmed from the visibly distinct disconnect between the youth and the elderly of her community and broader society. Sharon explains, “In our fast-paced society, jobs, finances, and the stresses of twenty first century lifestyles, have become continuous threats, undermining and fracturing the family unit. We have come to see less intergenerational connecting within the family circle.“ When a proliferation of walled retirement communities started popping up in the Okanagan and across the province, she began questioning the reasons behind their creation. Why did so many people want to live in an enclosed community? What were they trying to hide from or avoid?
Sharon determined that ultimately, the answer to her question was the fear of young people. With vandalism, alcohol abuse, and crime against the elderly frequently making headlines in the media, it was hardly surprising that seniors often feared youth, regarding them as noisy, rude, thoughtless, and even violent. MacKenzie observed the generations of society being segregated both physically and socially. Children and elders were rarely getting a chance to know each other in a meaningful way. She saw the dissociation of elder relatives from the young as a rising impediment in intergenerational understanding. Sharon decided immersion might be the answer and reacted to this increasing alienation by starting the Meadows School Project, an applied model of Community Embedded Praxis and intergenerational bridge building.
Differing from the more common youth and senior bridge-building initiatives in which students visit senior “buddies” weekly or for special occasions, the Meadow’s School Project is characterized as a fully immersed program where the entire class of intermediate students moves into a makeshift classroom at the senior community. Participation by the residents of Coldstream Meadows Retirement Community was voluntary, which allowed the seniors their choice of days, times, and the ability to opt-out at any point. For 2 months of the school year, 5 weeks in the fall and 3 weeks in the spring, students and seniors melded their day through sharing stories, fitness, special events, celebrations, crafts, sing-a-longs, lunch, and daily visitations, all the while covering government mandated curriculum.
To those involved, it wasn’t long before it became apparent that this was a step in the right direction. Stereotypes were breaking-down; seniors shared their wisdom while students shared what is like to grow up in today’s world. Students learned social and personal responsibility through daily involvement with the seniors, and important public service tasks at the seniors’ residence. The lives of both seniors and students were greatly impacted and enriched as a result of this amazing learning experience. Mackenzie explains, “Connecting seniors and children/youth meaningfully builds respect, practices empathy, improves mental, physical and social health of both age groups, and puts education into life context by blending elder wisdom with youthful interpretations.”
There was an intrinsic goodness about what was happening that everyone involved soon recognized, including filmmaker Jim Elderton. In the fall of 2007, his one-hour documentary, ‘Whose Grandma Are You?’ based on the project, premiered at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre, hosted by CBC’s Shelagh Rogers. Rogers came on behalf of the late June Callwood of Toronto, who had been Sharon’s friend and mentor for five years during development of the Meadows Project. Immediately, the film opened a floodgate of national interest. The full immersion intergenerational project soon grabbed the attention of the provincial and federal governments, community organizations, celebrities, media, and international supporters.
In the summer of 2008, after 7 years of running the project, Sharon stepped out of the walls of her classroom for the last time. She headed out on a journey across Canada to encourage other teachers to seek more community-connected ways for their students. Sharon created the i2i Intergenerational Society of Canada, a not-for-profit society, which strives to promote and support sustainable intergenerational activities between schools, communities, and health care facilities. The i2i website www.intergenerational.ca has recently been embraced as the national umbrella for intergenerational resources and sharing.
Presently, Mackenzie is developing a national curriculum kit for grades 4-6, focused on elder abuse and its prevention for the Public Health Agency of Canada. She is also working with the International Federation of Ageing (IFA) and the International Network of Prevention of Elder Abuse (INPEA) to create an international kit for youth aged 15-19 on broadening awareness of elder abuse. This involves working on the pilot with five high schools representing the width and breadth of Canada, from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island, and international schools in India.
To Sharon Mackenzie, meaningful interaction between generations is the starting point of building a healthy community and society. As she eloquently states, “If the work world and world of commerce is conceived as a wildly spinning orb, then standing around the outside, apart yet a part of, are the seniors and children. More alike than different, these two generations stand on the periphery of the mainstream buzz of society: one struggling to enter the world of consumerism, and one opting out, one attempting to build a social network, the other seeing their social network pass away, one lacking the maturity to be independently mobile, the other giving up independent mobility for canes, walkers, and wheelchairs. For both groups there is loneliness, but also for both there is the freedom to laugh and the desire to love: to love ice cream and bubbles, to laugh at lost teeth and misplaced shoes, to share little things that no one else notices, to crave the touch of the hand, to anticipate a visit, to give gifts of caring, and to sing and play games. But most of all what the seniors and children have, and both want to spend, is time.”
Christie Brugger is an aspiring writer, world traveler, outdoor enthusiast currently living in Tofino.