School program pairs students with seniors: ‘They really do develop friendships’

Alberta school program pairs students with seniors
WATCH ABOVE: In our fast-paced wired world sometimes the real life human bonds can get lost. A unique school program is building face to face friendships by connecting generations. Laurel Gregory reports.

They were born on different continents, 81 years apart. Yet, over the last three years, Emily Legate and Alice Thomas have become the closest of friends. Their monthly visits are so important, 92-year-old Thomas switched her shopping day from Tuesday to Wednesday so she wouldn’t miss seeing Emily.

“She’s a special little girl,” Thomas said, adding the 11-year-old student is like a grandchild to her.

“We all need it. Us old people don’t need to grow old on their own. There’s always plenty of friends around.”

The friends are 28 students from James Mowat Elementary School. They visit the seniors’ residence once a month in the community of Fort Saskatchewan, Alta. Each student is paired up with a senior buddy. Together, they do all kinds of activities like making crafts, baking and playing games.

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Teacher Carole Bossert and a colleague launched the program Seniors and Youth Networking Communities (SYNC) four years ago and got it off the ground with the help of volunteers and donations.

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Bossert saw a need for SYNC as a way to build real-life friendships in an increasingly wired world.

“We’re more connected now than we’ve ever been but we’re connected through Facebook and Twitter and social media,” Bossert said.

“There’s nothing better than being connected face to face and that’s what matters. It matters to be sitting across from somebody and experiencing life with them, beside them. That’s what matters.”

For Legate, the opportunity to get to know Thomas has been enriching because her own grandparents live in B.C.

“I don’t spend much time around seniors other than Alice,” Legate said. “I’ve learned about her childhood, things about her, how many kids she’s had and her husband.”

The reality of befriending elderly seniors means some students have learned about loss too. Ryann White’s senior buddy of three years passed away this fall.

“I’m not sure what happened… It was heartbreaking.”

White said the most difficult part was “probably not saying goodbye.”

Students who lose a senior buddy are given the option to take a break or to be matched up with a new friend the following visit.

READ MORE: Four-year-old sparks new purpose in lonely senior’s life through unlikely friendship 

While the losses have brought some heartache, there’s been a lot of joy too.

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Bossert says every month, she sees the faces of seniors and students light up when they see each other. The program has expanded to another school and the teacher would love to see it reach even more.

“When I see the students here connecting with seniors the way I was able to connect with my grandparents, the only word I can think of is it’s so rewarding,” Bossert said.

“They really do develop friendships and they really do love each other. It’s really neat to see that.”