'Resident granddaughter': Calgary student enjoys living at seniors' home

Free room and board for 30 hours of weekly volunteering at a seniors home is paying off for a Calgary student in ways she didn’t dream of.

'For the first time in my life, I felt 100 per cent safe and at home'

Student-in-residence Dani Dykema, centre, with two of the friends she has made from the partnership, Jim Ion and Fanny Bolland. (Ellis Choe/CBC)

Free room and board for 30 hours of weekly volunteering at a seniors home is paying off for a Calgary student in ways she didn't dream of.

"There is nothing like having over 80 people supporting your journey," Dani Dykema told The Homestretch on Monday.

"They encourage me throughout the week. They affectionately call me the resident granddaughter."

Dykema is the student-in-residence at the Fish Creek United Active Living facility, a partnership with St. Mary's University, where she's completing her last year of an English program.

Her commute, which used to be a 40-minute drive, has been slashed since she moved in.

"It was just a really amazing opportunity to be so close to school. That was how it first started with me."

She didn't know what to expect, although she's always had a way with more experienced generations.

"I have always been really comfortable with seniors, starting conversations with people, getting to know people on a personal level," Dykema said.

"I was a little bit more worried about their expectations of me and didn't know what to expect."

'She makes our lives interesting'

Fanny Bolland has lived in the community for about a year. She said Dykema was a breath of fresh air.

"I am very happy when Dani arrives," Bolland said.

"She makes our lives interesting. We sort of live vicariously through her. We want to know all about what she is doing and her boyfriend and things like that. I think it's very nice for someone young to come and spend time with us. We are all pretty well over the hill here."

Playing the grand piano in the facility's theatre is just one way Dani Dykema interacts with her senior friends. (Ellis Choe/CBC)

But Dykema found that she gets as much as she gives.

"They specify the quota of time that I need to spend but I probably put in triple that time, because now they are all my friends and family. It is not a job for me to spend time with them," she said.

"It just naturally happens."

Another resident, Jim Ion, said Dykema is good at some things, and not so much at others.

"She's a very good pianist," Ion said.

"She's a very friendly, happy girl to have around. But she goes skiing and she's not a good skier."

A bad skiing accident in November is what he's talking about.

"I shattered my left leg, had emergency surgery that night. It was brutal," Dykema explained.

"After the accident, I came back and there was a group of residents waiting for me at the front door. They visited me twice a day, bringing me chocolates and fruit and checking up on me."

When it comes to university accommodations, most students typically live in residence, rent a place with friends or stay at home. But Calgary student Dani Dykema chose to live at a seniors home. United Active Living and St. Mary's University have a unique partnership called the Student-in-residence program. That's where one St. Mary's student gets free room-and-board in exchange for 30 hours per week of volunteer duties with seniors. After a thorough application process last year, Dani was accepted - and she got much more than she bargained for. The Homestretch's Ellis Choe caught up with her in the dining room at United Active Living. 7:19

Dykema said her friends at the home are sometimes looking for a friendly ear.

"I have heard from quite a few people that the relationships they have built with me are the relationships they wish they could build with their grandkids," she said.

"They have stories to tell. They have dreams and memories and things they want to pass on to the next generation, and a lot of times we don't take the time to stop and listen to those things. That's why this program can be so powerful."

And while Dykema's time in the program comes to an end next month, she will take with her memories and confidence that will last a lifetime.

"Because I don't have a very strong family background on my own, this has been super healing for me, just to have all of these people in my life. They didn't know me before moving in here, but yet they still welcomed me with open arms.

"For me, it's always been hard to be totally myself and these people have taught me that's totally OK. For the first time in my life, I felt 100 per cent safe and at home."


With files from CBC's Ellis Choe and The Homestretch