GrandPals: Program unites Sudbury's older adults, younger citizens

The National Institute on Ageing revealed in a study released last year that as many as 41 per cent of Canadians aged 50 years and older are at risk of social isolation.

The study also found that up to 58 per cent of older Canadians have experienced loneliness.

Not only is loneliness bad for mental health, but researchers are discovering it's also bad for your physical health.

A new program in Sudbury, however, aimes to help not only older citizens but younger ones as well.

“I heard about GrandPals, explored it further, and connected with the organizers," recalled Laryssa Vares, a public health nurse with Public Health Sudbury and Districts. "It’s a unique intergeneration initiative focused on story-telling. It seemed like a good fit.”

Vares called GrandPals a success.

“I work in the healthy aging program area," she said. "Here was an idea developed in Canada. It’s really neat to find a program like this established in Ontario. It interested me to want to run it here ...

“It was originally developed for a school setting. It really enhances social connections across all ages.”

The idea was developed in 2010 and championed by Marc Mailhot, an award-winning educator at Montgomery Village Public School in Orangeville, Ont.

Mailhot subsequently collaborated with other educators and they distilled the exercise to a simple question: “How might we provide our students with more applied, experiential avenues for character development?”

GrandPals may also preserve local history while “giving older adults a more youthful perspective.”

In 2021, Mailhot partnered with the Centre for Studies in Aging and Health at Providence Care to expand the program nationally. The centre manages staff to help equip and prepare organizations to implement the GrandPals Program locally.

Originally, it paired an elementary school class with a small team of GrandPals (adults older than 55) to engage in weekly, open conversations.

The idea was that there was a method to build understanding, mutual respect and an increased sense of belonging.

Next, they decided to bring students to a local retirement residence for weekly visits. There, they engaged in activities with senior residents to develop empathy, a service mindset, and other attributes related to character development.

A study by Nicole Liebowitz, at the University of Guelph, highlighted how GrandPals formed meaningful connections with the students. There was also an opportunity for a reciprocal exchange of knowledge and experiences between younger and older people.

“Involvement in GrandPals appeared to be beneficial for participants’ mental health and well-being” and had a significant impact on participants’ social participation/social network, Vares said.

She shared how it rolled out here. “Most recently, they looked to expanding the program to the libraries. Sudbury is the second library system to pilot it.

"Queen's University evaluates and guides our next steps. There were exit surveys for all participants. Our goal is really to refine what went well and to understand anything we need to improve on. We want to create impactful opportunities. It is about bringing all different generations together to learn from each other.

“We had three GrandPal volunteers and each week we had eight to 12 children attend. Each GrandPal was paired with three to four young people every week. We try to keep the children with the same GrandPal every week so they could form a bond … a relationship over the span of the seven weeks.”

Youths nine to 11 years old were the target cohort.

Parkside Older Adult Centre, The Older Adult Advisory Panel and Stay on Your Feet recruited the GrandPals whilst the children were enrolled through the Greater Sudbury Public Libraries Event Calendar.

“We also put it on Facebook and the school boards where the parents could register their children to participate,” Vares said.

Potentially, this could be offered more broadly in the community. “Schools could explore this,” Vares said.

“The library selected the South End branch. It has a great meeting space in the downstairs children’s area. It’s really nice down there. This is a new program for us ... a pilot.

"At Public Health, we have a role to play in healthy aging for older adults. We look at ageism and social isolation particularly. Those are two big societal issues.”

Tackling these issues can have a big impact, “like a ripple effect,” Vares said.

The program had a final wrap-up evening “to bring a sense of closure.” Parents were invited to the evening earlier this month to hear about the impact and see a wall mural created by the participants. There were some certificates and small tokens of appreciation.

Vares is sharing the story of this program with her colleagues and her larger community of practice.

“This was definitely a win. It is good to showcase a program like this. Our partners were instrumental in making this happen.”

The GrandPals stories expose students to diverse world views, she said. It helps anchor generations and create a sense of belonging.

The interactions inspire creativity and imagination that result in enriched learning and lasting pieces of work that both students and GrandPals can be proud of.

For more information on the program, go to grandpals.ca.

The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government.

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Hugh Kruzel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star