British Columbia

Bridging the gap between young and old offers valuable lessons

The Royal Ascot Care Centre may look like a typical seniors' facility in Vancouver — but it’s often filled with kindergarteners socializing with the elderly.

Program founders say they've seen kids coming out of their shells, building empathy with seniors

'Little buddies' from kindergarten classrooms and 'grand buddies' from a Vancouver seniors' care home have their final visit of the school year. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

The Royal Ascot Care Centre may look like a typical seniors' facility in Vancouver — but it's often filled with kindergartners socializing with the elderly.

It's a part of a program called When I Grow Young, co-founded by friends, Mary Zheng and Amber Dukart, who are committed to establishing intergenerational relationships for young students in East Vancouver.

"We both have strong relationships with our own grandparents as well as meaningful relationships with seniors in the community," said Zheng, who is a kindergarten teacher.

The pair applied to the Vancouver Foundation's Neighbourhood Small Grant Program a couple of years ago, received funding, launched the program and it's been running ever since.

They've already connected four elementary classes with four care homes in the city.

Queen Alexandra Elementary School was the first school to link up with Royal Ascot almost two years ago.

Kindergarten teacher Julie Gelson said she has noticed her young students developing real friendships with the residents.

Intergenerational friendships aim to build community, ease loneliness and help children develop empathy and compassion. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

"In the beginning, some of them didn't want to come because the [seniors] weren't interacting with them. But now, they come in and they just chatter. So they realize if they just talk, that it makes the residents happy," Gelson told Rachel Sanders, story producer for CBC's On the Coast.

The elders are nicknamed "grand buddies" and the kindergartners are called "little buddies."

Their time together includes playing games, singing songs, talking, and eating snacks. During the winter months, the organizers take extra health precautions to prevent colds and flu. 

Emotional learning in kindergarten

The founders were surprised to find this kind of program didn't already exist. They say the multigenerational friendships in their own lives have provided profound mutual benefits.

"Most of our social emotional learning is done at a very young age in kindergarten and having these visits allows students to really learn how to empathize and to show compassion to others who are very, very different from them," Zheng said. 

The program has been running for almost two years and has connected four elementary classes with four care homes in Vancouver. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Dukart said some students who were shy in the classroom began to come out of their shells after the care home outings.

Royal Ascot recreation coordinator Vanessa Sherer says the residents faces are gleaming with joy during the visits, and it lasts well after the students leave.

"Their spirits are brighter ... it's just really rewarding and lovely to know that they enjoyed it so much," she said. 

With files from Rachel Sanders and On the Coast

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