Harnessing and honouring the collective wisdom of our elders

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By Kristian Partington

Ron Schlegel is a humble philanthropist, an urban developer with a unique vision of community, a visionary in health and long-term care and a hard-working farmer all tied into one brilliant and cheerful package.

He is an elder in society with a wealth of wisdom to impart but perhaps one his greatest specialities is his understanding of elderhood. As a boy he would rush home from school to assist the residents who lived in the small nursing home his parents operated in London, Ont. When he finished clearing their plates after dinner, he would do his homework at their feet while they told him stories of the past.

This was the era when the medicalization of aging was in its early stages and the warehousing of older adults in declining health was ramping up. As Ron aged, he knew there was a better way to support older adults and today, he is the founder of Schlegel Villages, a collection of 19 long-term care and retirement communities across southern Ontario that embraces basic values of family and community. Ron’s vision of social model of living to counter the institutionalization of long-term care continues to expand, and that vision is certainly inspired by the experiences he had as a child working with older adults in their final years.

“The greatest untapped resource in Canada, if not the world,” Ron said in conversation a few years ago, “is the collective wisdom of our oldest generations.”

Spirited and creative giving

It is this thought that grew into the campaign, which throughout Senior’s Month in June the past three years has reminded community members of the value that older adults have in lived experience.

“The premise is quite simple,” says Ted Mahy, online engagement manager with Schlegel Villages. “In all the cities from Whitby to Windsor where Schlegel Villages operates, a green bench will appear on a chosen day in June in a prominent location. An older resident will be sitting there and the community – from mayors to sports teams to everyday folks – is invited to sit and share conversation.” From there, photos and quotes are shared through platforms like Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, all using the hashtag ElderWisdom

The inaugural campaign in 2016 was modestly successful and 2017 showed even greater attention. However, 2018 is when the scales tipped and the ever-sought-after viral attention a social media junkie craves has made ElderWisdom a global conversation. People are calling Ted from Hong Kong to ask if they can get benches and a group in Ireland wants to mirror the campaign. Someone in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, a town of 16,000 souls, asked if the ElderWisdom tour to could stop there. News feeds are sharing widely and one video in particular had garnered more than 600,000 views by the middle of June, barely half way through the campaign.

“It’s sad to say but ageism seems to be the last acceptable form of prejudice in our society,” Ted says, “but when younger people get past the stereotypes that come with getting older and just sit and talk with an elder, those ageist barriers break down so easy. That’s what makes the ElderWisdom campaign so special and it’s amazing to see the conversation spread.”

In early June, Ted had the opportunity to sit upon the green bench in Guelph with the Right Honourable David Johnston, a man whose wisdom was well placed in his role as Canada’s 28th Governor General.

He recalled the first speech he gave in 2010 after he was sworn in as the Queen’s representative as Canada’s head of state. “If you remember only three words of what I say today,” he said that auspicious day, “they are ‘cherish our teachers,’ and if we had a day or two that we could spend together I could tell you a hundred stories about teachers, mentors, advisors, councillors who have had an impact on my life.”

“That’s what the wisdom of elders represents.”

“We learn from the people who’ve gone down the path before and have made some stumbles along the path and have recovered,” Johnston continued.

The opportunity to sit with them for a little while during this specific campaign reminds us all of the value to be found in such depth of experience, and encourages people to see past the stereotypical views that follow aging to see that in the minds and hearts of seniors, much remains on offer.

Kristian Partington is a freelance writer.