Surrey youth walk with the wise

SURREY — The corridors of this assisted living residence in Surrey ring with the sound of lively conversation, as residents excitedly share stories with a group of young students visiting from nearby Holy Cross.

Len King clutches a walker as he talks about growing up during the Great Depression in the northwest suburbs of Toronto. He pauses when I ask him whether his Grade 8 companion brings back memories.

"Everybody does," he says, laughing. The sprightly 93 year old moves deceptively fast for a man approaching his centennial years.

"I need the walker now because my balance started to go on me. I’m taking exercises now. A chap comes in and we play catch with a plastic ball."

This day is the first of a pilot project at Fraser Health’s assisted living residence Fleetwood Villa, which will pair isolated seniors – defined as seniors who may stay in their room most of the time or not have many visitors – with students at Holy Cross.

The students will accompany the seniors on walks around the facility to help them build strength and confidence.

Annie Schampier, 88, is surprised, then blushes and breaks into a big grin when she sees her visitor.

"Thanks for coming and visiting us, that was very, very nice," she says to Leslie Jean Hibbert.

The conversation soon turns to life advice and the importance of becoming more independent.

"(I want to) let them know it’s not always Mommy and Daddy paying the school and all," she says. "You have to work hard after this."

Schampier was 14 when she and her family became war refugees after the Nazis captured her home of Belgrade, Serbia. She left everything behind and never returned, so she knows something about starting life with nothing.

Hibbert says she enjoys listening to the wisdom of older people.

"I think it’s a really valuable experience because you can learn so much from people from a different generation," she says. "Because they’ve been through it all and they have a lot of knowledge."

By the time the current generation of seniors turn 85, almost 25 per cent will be described as ‘frail’ – thin, weak and slowmoving. Frailty can lead to increased risk for poor health outcomes, falls, disability, hospitalization and death, says Tasleem Juma, a spokeswoman for Fraser Health.

"We know that the more active they are, the less chance they have of falling and injuring themselves," says Juma.

But there is no reason frailty has to be a natural part of getting older.

"By partnering youth to help seniors with a simple exercise program of walking – even in their residential care ‘home’ – seniors can retain their vitality, strength, energy and sense of well-being," says Juma.

Social interaction with others also has a role to play in helping the seniors avoid the very real hazards that increasing frailty can pose. The students, by motivating the seniors to sustain some sort of program until it becomes routine, will result in improved muscle strength and balance.

That, Juma says, will lead to an improved sense of well-being and confidence to stay actively involved in the community, and ultimately out of the hospital.

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