Now in its fourth year, an initiative that seeks to reduce ageism by giving people a place to sit and listen to the lived experience of a senior citizen is growing into an international phenomenon.
#ElderWisdom is an initiative of Schlegel Villages, which manages a number of long-term care and retirement ‘villages’ across Canada. Each city that Schlegel serves has at least one sage green-coloured bench that resides somewhere within its retirement residences.
One day a year the benches are placed in a conspicuous part of the city the village serves and a resident is invited to sit in it to share their wisdom to people walking by.
On Friday, benches from the two villages located in Guelph — The Village of Riverside Glen and The Village of Arbour Trails — were placed outside City Hall between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m.
“We are hoping to reduce ageism within the community and it also gives the residents a chance to come out and have conversations with the community and share their advice and wisdom,” said Felicia Laramie, project coordinator for Elder Wisdom.
Usually, #ElderWisdom events include one to two benches, but this year a third bench was brought in from a neighbouring city.
“The more the merrier,” said Laramie.
Wesley Anderson is a Riverside Glen resident and former teacher in Guelph. He said he jumped at the chance to meet new people on the bench at Market Square.
Originally from Jamaica, Anderson began teaching in Saskatchewan before moving east to Ontario.
“I came to Guelph for the warmer weather,” he said.
Anderson said he taught at many schools in Guelph.
“I was called to supply one day and I got to the school and it was a kindergarten class. They just kept unlacing my shoes,” he recalled.
Being a former teacher, Anderson said he was used to chatting with people and said he has a few pieces of wisdom to share.
“I call for love and sharing and doing good for the unfortunate,” he said.
Frances Mathieson lives at the Village of Arbour Trails. She woke up Friday with a note on her door saying they were looking for a resident to participate in the day’s #ElderWisdom event.
“I happened to have an empty day, so I thought, ‘why not?’” said Mathieson.
Long involved in choir singing, Mathieson said she performed in probably every retirement residence in Guelph. The surroundings of The Village of Arbour Trails appealed to her life-long love of the outdoors.
“When I saw (Arbour Trails), I knew it was the one. It’s in a nice area, I look out my door to a small lake with birds, she said.
The #ElderWisdom message of sharing lived experience and fighting ageism is growing organically, said Ted Mahy, online engagement manager for Schlegel Villages.
“It’s nice to get calls from organizations around the world saying they want a bench and want to share this message,” said Mahy.
In all, Mahy said he has received about 30 inquiries about getting an #ElderWisdom bench or participating in the initiative.
The National Health Service in England reached out to seek the blessing of Schlegel Villages to set up its own bench in Manchester.
As long as an organization’s goals align with the #ElderWisdom ideals, Mahy said they are likely to get its blessing.
“It’s not about marketing and organizations or making sales — its about the seniors and their wisdom. “I think there’s also a message around people living in long-term care or retirement are not just shoved to the side, that they still have a voice and still have value in our community. Our goal is to encourage that.”
Jack Stevenson also lives at Riverside Glen. He has participated in #ElderWisdom a few times and last year met Mayor Cam Guthrie and then-newly elected MPP Mike Schreiner.
This year, MP Lloyd Longfield sat for a chat with Stevenson and the other residents.
Stevenson said it is important for politicians to listen to people with lived experience, but he also really likes making new connections.
“There are so many different kinds of people,” said Stevenson. “It makes me think about the future.
Recently, Stevenson participated in a #ElderWisdom event with medical students at the University of Waterloo, where the Schlegel residents were asked all kinds of questions with the hope that their shared experience would eventually help to make better doctors.
“We were only supposed to be there an hour, but we ended up being there for almost two,” said Stevenson.