Art Links Lives (A.L.L.): An Intergenerational, Intercultural Art Program

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15-year old Zoë loves getting together with her buddy Noah.  They eat pizza together and tell each other about what’s going on in their lives.  It sounds like a conventional teenage relationship – except Zoë and Noah hang out at Jewish Eldercare Centre – a 320-bed long-term care facility in Montreal, Quebec.  Noah lives there.  He is 90 years old.

Zoë Ruel-Fraser and Noah Chmielas are participants in the award-winning Art Links Lives (ALL) project.  For the last three years, Jewish Eldercare Centre has forged ties with a local high school (Pierrefonds Comprehensive) that sees high school students partner up with elderly residents in a unique project that benefits both populations through the process of creating art.  Relationships are developed, life lessons are taught and beautiful works of art are created.

Today Noah tells Zoë that his past is difficult to talk about but that sitting and talking with her is a favourite memory. He says he loves to be in the company of youth. 

“I decided to draw a picture of my buddy in a park with children playing all around him, to demonstrate his love for the younger generation,” says Ruel-Fraser. The artwork is done in charcoal and pencils.  “This is a very wonderful and inspiring program. It gives us great insight about what life was like for our buddies. And you can’t help but compare their lives to our own. The older generation can teach us so much.”

The 12 sets of “buddies” work together through the entire school year on an art project based on one of the elderly resident’s cherished memories.  Regular visits are scheduled and the participants correspond by e-mail. 

Relationships slowly but surely develop as the intergenerational partners open their lives to each other by visiting each other in their home (Jewish Eldercare Centre) and school settings.  During the visits, residents share stories of the past which inspire the collective art-making process.  The students work on their art at school and bring their artwork in various stages of completion to show their “buddy”. 

The pride in their work is evident and smiles abound as each piece is unveiled, and the residents continue to tell their stories.  The year-long project culminates in a vernissage (art exhibit) that is open to the entire Jewish Eldercare community.  There is a permanent Art Links Lives exhibit on display at Jewish Eldercare Centre for everyone to enjoy on a daily basis.

As beautiful as their final creations are, Art Links Lives is about the process in and of itself.  The benefits are mutually beneficial to both our elderly residents and the younger generation who may not have had the luxury of all that a “grandparent” relationship has to offer.  In addition, most of these younger students are being exposed to Jewish traditions and culture for the very first time.  They celebrate Chanukah together and learn firsthand what it means to be Jewish both today and in the past.  Both generations are empowered and enriched; the teens become the memory keepers of the stories of the past; the older generation appreciate the interest shown in their past and are emboldened and refreshed by forging a relationship with a younger buddy. 

“This program exposes the students to people with a loss of autonomy in a way that makes them not afraid anymore. It’s a wonderful way to break down barriers and gives each person a better understanding of each other,” says Lisa Patterson, Coordinator of Volunteer Services at Jewish Eldercare.  “Each resident gets to share their life story and really connect with a student.”

The teenage participants learn some important life lessons along the way.  Most of the elderly participants are aged 85 and older; two of the residents participating last year were over 100 years old!  It is a reality that students may experience the loss of a buddy; for many of the teens, it may be the first exposure they have to loss and their first experience of grieving.  While it is a difficult lesson to learn, it is an important one which offers the teens a chance to mature and evolve, and helps them realize the bond they shared with someone they seemingly had very little in common with.

“I love to see the kids from another point of view. You hear so much about high school students not being respectful. These kids show love, kindness and respect to the older generation. They don’t want to disappoint their buddy”, says Sylvie Allard, who coordinates the program and teaches art at Pierrefonds Comprehensive High School.

The A.L.L. Vernissage at Jewish Eldercare takes place this year on April 23rd, 2013.  Participating residents and students will be in attendance, along with their works of art.