Across the Generations

Making friends and running errands with Montreal seniors

By: McEan Taylor, Staff Writer

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”

Caught up in the university hustle, it can be easy to go four years without getting to know the surrounding community. Yet, the opportunity for meaningful and impactful friendships with the elderly is often overlooked while students speed through their degrees.

According to Intergenerational Theory in Society, a paper by Professor Karen VanderVen at the University of Virginia, intergenerational relationships are similar to the mentorships that form when a person is lacking in parental guidance.

“Where relationships have not been successful and development disrupted, interventions such as mentoring [...] have been designed to compensate for a relationship lack and promote resilience in the mentee,” the study reads. “Intergenerational programs, like mentoring, have been designed to enhance and extend the relationships of people of different ages in a way that is developmentally enhancing.”

Not all volunteers start at Yellow Door with the intention to make friends or meet mentors. Stephanie Butchart, 31, began 10 years ago following advice from her late grandmother.

“[During] one of our last times together, she said that I should be there for others as I had been for her,” Butchart said.

After dozens of one-time matches with seniors doing errands, accompanying them to medical appointments, and facilitating Yellow Door’s various workshops, Butchart was matched with a member for friendly visits that have continued weekly for over eight years. Through Yellow Door, Butchart did an internship, which led her to discover the possibility of turning her passion into a career.

“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”

“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,” Butchart said.

Now, Butchart works as a community support worker at a social service organization for individuals who are over 50-years-old. She also provides experiential support services for all ages and continues to volunteer for Yellow Door in her own time.

“[Volunteering] has allowed me to create connections with a variety of people whom I would have never met otherwise,” Butchart said. “What I find so special is that not only has it given me and members the space to grow closer over time, but is often a way I can relate to other people while working in the community.”

At Yellow Door, the process of matching a volunteer with a senior community member takes into account both participants’ interests and life experiences such as careers and family matters, among a host of other factors. As a result, there is a waiting list of seniors who may not match with any currently available volunteers.

“There [are] never enough [volunteers] because there’s always a waiting list,” Dalva said. “I want to give a meaningful experience [for] both the volunteer and the senior, so it’s not just making a match because they are available.”

As life expectancy increases, more people form intergenerational relationships and volunteer. In recent years, Yellow Door has grown to around 250 volunteers serving 300 adults, with more volunteers signing up every week.

When she has the opportunity to sit down with the seniors benefiting from her hard work, Dalva enjoys hearing about the impact the Generations program makes on seniors’ lives.

“[I really love] hearing those simple statements of ‘I consider this volunteer my grandson, or granddaughter, or family I never had,’” Dalva said. “Sometimes people send cards just to say thank you for giving me the opportunity to meet someone I otherwise would never have met. Those little thank-yous mean the world.”

My experience at Yellow Door has helped me realize that pursuing friendships with seniors is something I will always continue to do. Friendships made through the Generations program are essential to the Milton-Parc community and create impactful memories. For Denyse, visits are the highlights of her week.

“[Having volunteers visit] means looking forward to seeing people I like,” Denyse said. “[On] days I see volunteers, I am very happy when I wake up.”