Grandparents House Unites Generations

Mary Moorhead visited Canada recently for an international conference on aging in Montreal. She observed Canada’s health- and elder-care systems, and this article is the second in a series detailing what she learned.

As I prepared to visit the Grandparents House of Villeray in Montreal, Canada, I pondered the normal age-group segregation that occurs in our daily lives. As preschoolers, middle-schoolers, teens, young families and seniors, we go about our daily routines mostly interacting with our peers. I wondered, what would it be like if we co-mingled with other generations throughout the day? Would we grow to understand each other? Would our lives be richer?

After a morning spent chattering in French with a group of lively volunteers in their 70s and 80s, I was convinced that we all lose in our age-centric lives.

Those typically in their 50s to 80s organize and lead all activities at the Grandparents House (La Maison), and intergenerational community center. La Maison strives to assist struggling low-income families in the surrounding Montreal neighborhood.

La Maison is a large renovated house. There is a comfortable living room, den and inviting dining area. I loved the sunlit modern kitchen with an enormous picture window that overlooks a century-old church.

Programs include collective projects, the teaching of ancient crafts, a sewing center, a secondhand clothing store, one-on-one tutoring projects for teens and middle-schoolers, drawing and games with visiting classes of preschoolers, a summer camp, dinner-theater soirees and much more. The grandparents also fan out to local schools and volunteer in the classrooms.

A typical project pairs a senior with a single mother and her children. They plan meals, shop and cook together. After enjoying a pleasurable dinner, the mother takes additional meals home for her freezer. The mother learns budgeting, nutrition and cooking skills, and she gains a new friend and confidante. The children gain a “grandma” and an additional stable adult in their lives. The senior shares a lifetime of skills and wisdom, and contributes, one family at a time, to the improvement of the community.

The sewing projects have the same warm, busy and supportive feeling. Typically, a senior assists a group of middle-schoolers or teens in making the clothing of their choice. While teaching life skills, the senior develops camaraderie and becomes an attentive ear to sort out difficulties at home or in school.

Teens, typically a difficult group to reach, particularly enjoy the individual attention they receive during academic tutoring. Jacqueline, a dynamic, red-haired volunteer in her 80s, explained in rapid, heavily accented French: “The first half hourt of each session is spent listening and problem-solving how to handle, say, an alcoholic father or neglectful mother.”

Another volunteer, Jacques, is well liked by a group of male teens because he encouraged them to start a suggessful rap group. He shared his secrets to gaining their trust: “You must never judge them and you must help them develop confidence in themselves. One day I saw a boy break a church window, and he knew I saw him. When the police arrived, I decided not to reveal the boy’s name. I felt that despite the boy’s vandalism, he was not a bad boy.” Now, every time Jacques sees him, the boy gives a shy smile. The boy has not committed any more vandalism.

In addition to bridging the gap between generations and giving tangible and intangible rewards to all who participate, the Grandparents House has received numerous awards from the Canadian government. It has also been the catalyst for similar programs throughout Canada.

After saying goodbye to my new friends at La Maison, I thoughgt of our age-segregated lives here in America. I began to fantasize: What would it be like to see busloads of seniors pulling up to local schools to volunteer in the classrooms? What can we do to encourage such rich intergenerational relationships?