During the Winter term, some 60 third- and fourth-year kinesiology students at Ontario Tech University were matched with older adults of varying activity levels. The older adults volunteered to share a favourite activity with the student, like walking along a trail or going curling. Students shared something valuable in return, like how to use different technologies or a helpful exercise. At the end of the process, the seniors completed a confidential review of their partner, worth 10 per cent of the course grade.
This is part of the Adopt a Grand-Student course (formally Kine3200: Integrated Topics in Active Aging), intended to increase intergenerational learning and break down stereotypes about aging while engaging older adults living in the Durham Region.
In Oshawa, where Ontario Tech is based, approximately 28 per cent of the residents are age 55 and older, with that number expected to rise to 34 per cent by 2031. Course designer and instructor Shilpa Dogra, an associate professor in the faculty of health sciences, said it’s important for students to be exposed to this growing population in order to change the misconception that they are a “burden” on society or the health care system. “One way we can break down these stereotypes is by bringing these groups together,” she said. Many students are also likely to be working with seniors or creating policies that affect seniors “and they need to realize that those stereotypes play into decision-making,” she added.
Ingrid Kern, an 80-year-old program participant, said that she doesn’t have many younger contacts in the region and was happy to be exposed to their world. Her student partner, Sarah Doherty, is an elite baton-twirler who brought Ms. Kern on a tour of the Ontario Tech campus — which she admitted she did not know existed. “I got to know more about the tenacity of younger people in achieving things —they’re not all sitting at home, looking at TikTok,” Ms. Kern said.
Ontario Tech is among a handful of Canadian universities who have joined the Age-Friendly University (AFU) Global Network, receiving its designation in 2019. The network includes higher education institutions that have endorsed 10 AFU principles, including engaging older adults in core activities of the university and offering programming for all ages.
Dr. Dolgra, who chairs Ontario Tech’s AFU committee, said that she is looking forward to welcoming more older adults onto campus for recreational activities and learning events. “As a small community with a great university, it seems like a shame that older adults aren’t accessing it, so that’s what we’re pushing,” she said. “We also want the students to benefit from learning from [the seniors], because they have so much experience and expertise to offer.”
Following her campus tour, Ms. Kern shared that she plans to engage more with the campus – including at an upcoming board games night – and hopes other universities will take similar steps to open their doors to seniors. “If other universities do this sort of thing, it would be a positive step,” she said. “I had no idea it even existed, and now, I quite admire the university.”
This initiative impresses me. The goals are straightforward, but significant, the means of achieving them also proactive and low-risk for the participants, and I can imagine that most outcomes will be positive for both the older and the younger participants. Hats off to the instructor, Shilpa Dogra, for taking such a positive, inclusive, invitational way of “bringing these groups together”, and also for making the campus resources accessible to the community. It is often these ‘simple’ outreach steps that make the most tangible differences. I hope other campuses adopt this approach: it truly is win/win.