Opal McLean hesitates to admit she used to believe some of the less-than-flattering ideas out there about what older people are really like.

The 16-year-old from White Rock, B.C., doesn't have a lot of exposure to seniors in her day-to-day life, and with a grandmother who isn't very cheerful, she was left with an outlook on aging that was more negative than positive.

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Opal McLean, far right, appreciated the opportunity she had to take part in the Age is More film project with, from left, Hannah lohnes, Doreen Reid, Meg Fitzgerald and Bernard Beaudoin. (Submitted by Opal McLean)

It is, McLean says, "kind of embarrassing to say that I did believe the stereotypes.

"My one grandmother is quite grumpy."

McLean's outlook did a 180-degree turn, however, after she took part in a program that drew young Canadians and seniors together in a bid to fight stereotyping and discrimination against people based on their age.

McLean was one of about 20 teens in British Columbia and Ontario to take part in the initiative organized by Revera Inc., a provider of seniors' care, services and accommodation.

Through the Age is More program, run in conjunction with Reel Youth, a non-profit organization that focuses on youth and filmmaking, the teens were paired with seniors to make short videos delving into the older peoples' lives.

"It was amazing," McLean says. "It opened my eyes completely because I never considered ageism to be a really important subject."

'So enlightened'

The revelation came as a result of the time she spent with seniors Doreen Reid and Bernard Beaudoin. Everyone involved in the project — seniors and youth — came away feeling "so enlightened," McLean says.

"Some people, because of what they think of seniors, they're going to be too scared to go up to someone and talk to them and make a friendship because of the generation gap. It's a really big opportunity people are going to miss out on just because of the fear of them being mean and grumpy."

Such fears lie at the heart of ageism, something that Greg Shaw, a director at the International Federation of Ageing, says is probably one of the "most socially tolerated forms of discrimination in Canada."

'I think there are too many assumptions made by older people that youngsters are not capable of thinking any situation through thoroughly' - Bernie Custis

A 2012 report by Revera and the federation included research by Leger that found six in 10 seniors age 66 or older say they have been treated unfairly or differently because of their age.

More than three in 10 Canadians admitted to ageist behaviour, and, according to Revera, 71 per cent "agree older people are less valued in our society than younger generations."

"There's a misconception that as soon as you retire … it's like an expiry on a food product," says Shaw.

"Just because you've reached a certain age, it doesn't mean that you [can't still] contribute and the knowledge and the wisdom and the counsel that you can provide can't be valued.

"I think that's the biggest misconception that this [film] project and the Age is More program is actually trying to shed light on."

At the same time, research shows social contact can play a vital role for seniors as they grow older.

A report released by Statistics Canada last year found nearly 25 per cent of seniors say they want to take part in more social activities.

"The greater the number of frequent social activities, the higher the odds of positive self-perceived health, and the lower the odds of loneliness and life dissatisfaction," Statistics Canada said. "This is consistent with research that has found seniors with a wider range of social ties have better well-being."

Breaking barriers

For seniors who took part in the film project, it became a welcome opportunity to forge new friendships with young people, and learn a few things for themselves in the process.

"I think there are too many assumptions made by older people that youngsters are not capable of thinking any situation through thoroughly," says Bernie Custis, an 83-year-old resident at Appleby Place Retirement Living in Burlington, Ont.

Custis, who was a school principal for 33 years, also played football for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, becoming the first black quarterback in professional football in North America in 1951.

Bernie Custis

Retired school principal and CFL quarterback Bernie Custis says people are judged 'far too often.' (Revera Inc.)

"Far too often people are judged," Custis said in a statement. "In my life I have been fortunate enough to break some of these social barriers, which is why I was keen to participate in making this film."

In his film for the project, Custis talks of his football career, starting in high school.

"I think I still have a message to deliver to people that let's judge everyone on their content of their ability, and then that eliminates all these other issues that we're dealing with in life," he said in an interview.

Norma Clark, a 91-year-old retired nursing instructor, and her husband Roy, an 87-year-old retired surgeon, enjoyed the time they spent on the Reel Youth Project. The couple, who also live at Appleby Place and were medical missionaries in Africa for 15 years, were asked by their young interviewers about the romantic side of their relationship.

"We just basically talked about how we met," Roy said in an interview. "And then they wanted us to kiss each other, so we did that."

The Clarks met in 1950 in the emergency room of Toronto East General Hospital, where Roy was doing his residency. Another nurse helped set the couple up. 

"Then we sort of fell for each other and we got married two years later," says Roy. "We've been married for 61 years. We've been together for a long time."

While the Clarks would have liked their video to explore their career experiences, they appreciated the opportunity to be part of the project.

"I think there was a good camaraderie in all of the relationships," says Norma. "When we signed up, we weren't all that sure it was going to be worthwhile, but it was really good. And then when they showed the pictures … it was excellent."

Natural fit

For the Reel Youth organization, the film project was a natural fit.

"We find this kind of inter-generational work really inspiring," says programs manager Zoe Miles.

"It's become really clear to a lot of us at Reel Youth how much those inter-generational connections are missing for a lot of people in our culture, in our society, and just how much magic there is … when people get to connect with folks of other generations."

That magic goes both ways, Miles says: older people come alive because they are feeling as if they are being heard and celebrated, and younger people appreciate not being treated like children and instead being honoured as contributing members of a group.

The videos have been posted online and will be spread through social media, YouTube and the Revera network. They will also be submitted to film festivals in which Reel Youth is involved.

Revera's experience with the film project has prompted administrators to consider how they might do similar initiatives in their other 93 communities across Canada, particularly in light of predictions that the seniors' population in Canada will double by 2036.

"Oftentimes as we deal with seniors in our society, there's a big gap between the seniors and Gen Y and Gen X, and there's not the opportunities really I think to interact," says Stephen Foster, Revera's senior vice-president of retirement living.

"This project has provided an opportunity for them to interact and I think that having this dialogue and creating this awareness really helps break down some of the barriers."