Across the Generations
Making friends and running errands with Montreal seniors
When I first met Denyse Robertson, she was peering out from behind the barely-open front door to her home with a quizzical look on her face. I could not help but worry that, even with the best of intentions, my volunteering endeavours would meet a dead end if the woman I was matched with did not like me. My fears dissipated as soon as she opened the door wide and greeted me with the loudest “Bonjour!” I have ever heard. It was as if Denyse and I were old friends reunited after decades apart. A year later, I look forward to her “Bonjour!” every week.
Melissa Dalva is the Generations program coordinator at Yellow Door, a community centre and event space on Aylmer between Pine and Prince-Arthur. The organization originally focussed on serving affordable meals to students, the elderly, and the homeless while putting on concerts and local art exhibits. Added in 1972, the Generations program connects elderly members of the Milton-Parc community with volunteers who help them run errands, take them to medical appointments, or visit on a weekly basis. As the only staff member of the program, Dalva collects applications for both new volunteers and seniors, connects matches, and coordinates meetings across the city. She believes that the program’s positive impact is invaluable.
“It’s a time for different generations to bond over common interests, different interests, sharing life experiences, and exchanging values or traditions,” Dalva said. “From a senior’s perspective, it can also [feel like] leaving [behind] a legacy. In what [seniors] are sharing, it can make an impact on a younger person’s life [.…] Both older and younger people can feel valued and connected. Some of our members can feel forgotten, so when a volunteer comes even once a week, it can transform their daily lives.”
Denyse learned of Yellow Door through the Centre local de services communautaires (CLSC) after she moved back to Montreal from Paris four years ago. When she first returned to the city, she felt isolated and lonely. In Paris, she could meet with associates and friends constantly, and she received many visitors from all over the world. In recent years, her lack of mobility has made it difficult to engage with her peers.
“I feel bad [making] my friends push me in a wheelchair,” Denyse said. “They [view] me as slow and a fall-risk, [and] not someone who is fun.”
Yet, Denyse does not let her older friends determine her mindset about aging. Her television is always on, playing worldwide news. She emails her friends from around the world, maintaining connections while practicing her technological skills. Denyse leads a lifestyle that some might consider unusual for a woman of her age. A study in the Journal o Age Studies notes that seniors who form intergenerational friendships often feel disconnected from their same-age peers. Not every senior wishes to participate in leisure activities commonly associated with aging, and because they feel their peers subscribing to social norms for their age, many actively choose to socially distance themselves from their age-group.
“What the participants [of the study] rejected was the ubiquity of behaviours and characteristics ascribed to older people through social norms, age norms and expectations,” the article reads.
Some studies show that seniors that engage more with younger people have healthier cognitive function. While Denyse would always appreciate more visitors, she is content with her weekly visits from multiple volunteers.
Although I originally signed up for Yellow Door as a way to earn volunteer hours and break out of the McGill bubble, being paired with Denyse helped me realize the wealth of opportunities that volunteering offered me. After a year of seeing her each week, I can say that Denyse is one of my closest friends in Montreal.
While we shop for groceries or play with her two lovely cats, Myoko and DeeJay, Denyse often talks about her life experiences. Born in Montreal, she grew up at the height of the tensions between Anglophones and Francophones. Kids would often bully her for her English last name. In her early 20s, Denyse moved to Paris where she worked as CBC’s France correspondent. She covered the 1968 riots in France, where thousands of students and workers occupied universities and factories in protest of capitalism and consumerism. She was the first reporter to ever interview the North Vietnamese consulate in France at the height of the Vietnam war. After years of reporting, Denyse started her own PR company, managing events for Chanel and other brands around the world.
My friendship with Denyse gives me a chance to connect with someone with a broader outlook on life and perspective. Our interactions help put university stress into perspective as I listen to her memorable life stories.
Anna Nuechterlein, U1 Arts and Science, started volunteering at Yellow Door in her first year at McGill. As a way to offset the challenge of meeting people in residence, she began visiting two seniors in the program. She could relate to the isolation the older community members experienced and felt that her visits helped alleviate that feeling.
“We can all benefit [...] from those [who are] at different stages of life,” Nuechterlein said. “I have learned so much from older community members, and they are just keen to share their life lessons, experiences, and personal anecdotes. In turn, I think that, as young people, we have a lot of perspectives to offer as well. Most importantly, having these intergenerational friendships reduces feelings of isolation and loneliness for both parties, and works to reduce feelings of depression, anxiety and premature institutionalization in older people.”
“We can all benefit [...] from those [who are] at different stages of life”
“Friendly visiting led [me] to going back to college, [and] then university, and now I am a frontline professional directly involved in fulfilling the human experience”