Students and seniors living together in Calgary retirement home

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Students and seniors living together in Calgary retirement home
WATCH: A very unique program that spans generations is changing people's lives and perspectives. The Mount Royal University's English program pairs students with seniors. As Jill Croteau reports, the concept is to chronicle the seniors lives and write a story – May 8, 2018

It may have seemed like an unconventional arrangement but it was an opportunity that a Mount Royal University English student didn’t want to pass up.

To meet the academic requirements of her program, 22-year-old Breanna Massey was partnered with a senior living in a Calgary retirement residence in order to write a life story about her elder partner.

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She spent months interviewing the woman and became so close to her, she didn’t want that relationship to end. As a result, she moved into the same residential complex as the woman.

“I’m 22 and it’s like, ‘OK everyone, I live here now.’ [It’s] kinda weird, but people just welcomed me and invited me to dinner and the empathy they have shown me has been very life-changing.”

Massey has been living at the Garrison Green seniors home for 16 months now.

“Every resident here is an individual and has a deep and developed personality,” Massey says. “We have 135 of them in this complex and they are all wildly different.”

The resident she shared most of her time with, and also who she wrote about, is living with dementia. It was a complex relationship but rewarding for both of them.

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“We would have these wonderful conversations and be cackling and crying together and she would open up about these impactful life stories and I would come back the next week and she’d be like, ‘Hi, who are you?'” Massey recalls.  “She was meeting me anew every time and shared personal stories with me. There are stories at some point she may not remember.”

The finished stories are bound in a book and were gifted to the residents. The book also shares shelves with other publications in the MRU library.

Jim Dolph, 83, is another resident of the seniors home who was profiled by a previous student. He was grateful to have someone document his history.

“It’s a delight! When I was asked to tell my story, I said, ‘Yes,’ like a big dog,” Dolph says. “These stories need to be saved because in here, every five weeks, someone dies.

Breanna Massey and Jim Dolph have daily conversations. Jill Croteau

During her stay at Garrison Green, Massey organizes writing sessions and game nights as well as participating in outings. Her immersion into their community has given the seniors renewed perspective.

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“There are a lot of lonely people here, and they light up like flowers and they want to tell their stories and it blooms into a lot of things,” Dolph says.

Student and senior share time in the residence\’s art studio. Jill Croteau

And the connection is mutual. A graduate from the same MRU writers-in-residence concept loved her experience so much, she is now working as the program’s development coordinator.

Monica Schmidt never imagined she’d be working alongside the very people she wrote stories about.

“It grew into something I wasn’t expecting,” Schmidt says. “It’s inspiring, it’s a great perspective shift . As a society, we think of our older years as end of life, but it’s great to think, ‘No, it’s just the next chapter.'”

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David Hyttenrauch, the chair of the MRU’s English department, says this is an integral part of the students’ academic experience and has also been validating for their senior partners.

“Some of these people have done amazing things and transformed Calgary and they have never had anybody sit down and ask them to tell that story. So, it helps them reframe their own experience.”


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