White Coat, Black Art

Why there is so much happiness in this long-term care home that doubles as a Grade 6 classroom

A long term-care home in Saskatoon is providing a place for powerful exchanges between residents and Grade 6 students in an intergenerational classroom and through other activities designed to keep residents from being bored, lonely and feeling helpless.

Saskatoon residence is a ‘community where people thrive,’ CEO says

A Sherbrooke resident sits among three students.
A resident, centre, of the long-term care home at the Sherbrooke Community Centre in Saskatoon takes part in an intergenerational program with Grade 6 students. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

It's time for learning circle. Eleven-year-old Rachel Molnar is wrangling more guests for her Grade 6 classroom. 

But those participants aren't other Grade 6 students. 

That's because Molnar is a student in a classroom inside Sherbrooke Community Centre in Saskatoon. 

She and other students like her are spending the year in iGen, an intergenerational classroom where students and residents exchange wisdom and knowledge with each other Monday through Friday. 

"I love the energy, I love seeing everyone so happy," Rachel said. "Everyone is so welcoming." 

This program and others at Sherbrooke work to "alleviate the plagues of the human spirit" one senior — or elder, as they are called here — at a time, said CEO Kim Schmidt. 

"Our whole purpose is to create a community where people thrive," Schmidt told White Coat, Black Art host Dr. Brain Goldman. "Different from an institute where people are meant to die." 

Students and residents interacting in the classroom.
Eleven-year-old Rachel Molnar, centre, says the energy at Sherbrooke is one of her favourite parts of the iGen program. She's seen here with another student and some Sherbrooke residents. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

For more than 20 years, Sherbrooke has followed the Eden Alternative, a philosophy that addresses three major elements that can plague the human spirit: loneliness, helplessness and boredom. 

Developed by Harvard Medical School alumnus Dr. Bill Thomas, the Eden Alternative seeks ways to counter those plagues that often develop in long-term care homes. 

The philosophy offers creative methods to integrate children, animals and gardens in order to maintain a vibrant community. 

Sherbrooke follows a "Village Model," where nine to 10 residents live in houses that are attached to the rest of the institution by an internal street.

By design, Sherbrooke has people as young as 20 living and interacting in homes with folks aged 70 or 80. 

iGen doesn't have a set classroom, but uses various spaces around the building to conduct class. 

Teacher at Sherbrooke Community Centre.
Lead iGen teacher Keri Albert said her dream was always to 'create a shared space learning environment.' (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Natural exchanges between residents and students occur on a routine basis — whether that's going to or leaving school or through planned activity groups. 

Some of those include coffee club and art club. Students will engage with residents in physical activities like bowling. They even take turns helping out at the front desk. 

Keri Albert, lead teacher of iGen, said not every student goes to each group every day, but will have the chance to try every activity. 

'A shared space learning environment'

Albert said iGen is the first program of its kind in Canada — one that she had to propose to Sherbrooke herself. 

After she finished her master's degree in curriculum studies, she knew she wanted to create a space where people could share different learning experiences. 

"I had a dream that I wanted to build a different kind of classroom that was located in a community space," she said. "My dream was that it would be a shared space learning environment." 

Student pushes Sherbrooke resident on wheelchair.
Albert said students at Sherbrooke experience many things for the first time, including helping someone who uses a wheelchair. Here, a student helps to push Sherbrooke resident Barney Salamanchuk in his wheelchair. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

When she approached Sherbrooke 11 years ago, the centre was so keen on the idea that it proposed a full-time classroom. 

In association with the Saskatoon Public Schools board, it first ran in the 2014-2015 school year.

"I think we all were very excited to consider the kinds of relationships and experiences that the elders and children could have together over that period of time," she said. 

Albert was excited to consider the relationships that could be fostered in some of the natural interactions between the residents and students. 

"I hoped that it would be something that involved people of all ages, and coming from all places and walks of life."

Sherbrooke resident Ross McKay
Sherbrooke resident Ross McKay has been living with multiple sclerosis for nearly two decades. Having the iGen students around is 'fantastic,' he said. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Albert said the kids have the chance to encounter many experiences for the very first time: interacting with someone who uses a wheelchair, helping someone who can't verbalize and seeing or hearing things they otherwise aren't accustomed to. 

She describes it as a "ripple effect." 

"The kids see that the people who live here are valuable, meaningful, wonderful human beings. And the elders also see that in the kids," she said. "They see these kids are here to be our companions for the year, to make friendships with us.

"And those kids are the shining light that's going to change this world."

'Every day is different'

Molnar said engaging with the elders has allowed her to be more self-assured. 

"I know it's really helped me with my conversation skills." 

Another student, Mia Wright, said residents and students are "one big friend group." 

Her favourite part of being an iGen student is the diversity of each school day. 

"At iGen, every day is different," she said. "We're never doing the same thing and I love that we're not just in a classroom." 

Students have the opportunity to create friendships in group activities — such as a Truth and Reconciliation event where students would visit an elder in their home and ask if they could escort them to the event. 

Albert said during events like that, there's an abundance of time and space for students and residents to chat — something that helps relationships form quickly. 

CEO of Sherbrooke Community Centre Kim Schmidt.
CEO Kim Schmidt says 'we have a lot of fun here.' (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

She said her students start the year with small gestures, like learning the names of residents or getting to know the layout of the Sherbrooke neighbourhoods. 

Through those everyday routines and special events, students are given the chance to consider the accommodations of the elders around them. 

That could include asking someone if they need assistance with their wheelchairs, asking if they can take their brakes off, making sure they're comfortable or confirm they have their seatbelts on. 

'The kids are just fantastic'

All of those instances allow kids and elders to gain confidence and "to go off and have little adventures together," Albert said, adding that students can gain a sense of bravery and courage in spending time with people they don't know. 

Ross McKay has been a resident at Sherbrooke for seven years. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1991, Sherbrooke is the third long-term care facility he's lived in. 

For him, the best part of this living arrangement is the students. 

"The kids are just fantastic. They're not only great students but they're great to have around the building," he said. 

Social work consultant Linda Conway
Linda Conway is a social work consultant who says long-term care homes around Canada could benefit from an iGen classroom. (Linda Conway )

"They laugh and they joke … they push residents around, they interact with the residents, there's quite a few residents who are friends. They stop and visit with them, give them a hand — whatever is necessary." 

The opportunity to care

In accordance with the Eden Alternative, Sherbrooke offers "a lot of choice," said Schmidt. 

"There's not really that regimented schedule that you'll find in a traditional model. We have music and pets and lots of volunteers, and plants and gardening and all those things that we all have in our own lives that make it full and abundant," she said. 

Although most individuals require high levels of care, Schmidt said living arrangements function as regular long-term care facilities do. 

The living arrangements are "really diverse," she said, "and we try even within the neighbourhood where people live to have diversity in age, in ability — a healthy mix of people." 

At Sherbrooke, it's crucial to find an antidote to each Eden Alternative plague. Having close relationships helps alleviate the first one: helplessness.

"Lots of people in long-term care, they just receive care all of the time. They don't have the opportunity to give care," said Schmidt. "So how can they do that? They can have a job, they can help care for the plants, the animals, they can help care for the children." 

Variety and spontaneity can also help alleviate boredom — but they're "stamped out" in traditional institutions, said Schmidt. 

Sherbrooke's aspiration is to essentially create a place where at the flip of a dime, "unexpected things can happen," Schmidt said. "We have a lot of fun here." 

Helping residents feel useful

Linda Conway, a social work consultant who works in three long-term care facilities in Ontario, said iGen classrooms are something long-term care homes around the country should be thinking of implementing. 

"The worst problem we have in long-term care is people feeling lonely. Even though they're surrounded by other people, they don't necessarily make the connection," she said. 

The intergenerational aspect of Sherbrooke significantly helps residents feel "useful," she added, enabling them to have "a purposeful conversation with people who are not in a rush." 

Conway, who's spent a decade working in social work, said the iGen classroom functions as a "two-way street."

"The same children are coming back day after day, interacting with them, getting to know them, telling them things, learning things from them," she pointed out. 

"These young people … maybe haven't been able to have access to their own grandparents and great-grandparents and they haven't had those oral stories of what it was like when they were kids." 

Among the enlightenments the iGen students stumble upon is that no matter anyone's age or physical abilities, no one person is more important than the other.

"Let's say I treat Rachel some way," said Wright, "I should treat another person, even if they're in a wheelchair, the exact same way."

Molnar chimed in: "Everyone is a person. And everyone is the same and everyone should be treated equal."

WATCH | Students learn alongside long-term care residents:

School with seniors

2 months ago
Duration 7:28
An intergenerational program in Saskatoon allows Grade 6 students and long-term care residents to exchange wisdom and knowledge.


Keena Alwahaidi is a reporter and associate producer for CBC. She's interested in arts, culture, and human interest stories. Follow her on Twitter at @keenaalwahaidi