Features | Senior city

McGill Institute of Learning in Retirement

Henna Schaikh

This year the McGill Institute for Learning in Retirement (MILR) will commemorate its 20th year of providing a receptive and engaging educational community for seniors in Montreal.

To celebrate its anniversary, MILR members will travel around Quebec to moderate study groups among pockets of Anglophone seniors with the hope of disseminating their peer-learning model.

“[It’s an effort to] break the solitude, the isolation for seniors so that they can benefit from lifelong learning,” said Astri Thorvik, the chair of the Twentieth Anniversary Committee.

The aim is to spread the outlook that Nicole de Rochemont, the institute’s current president, used to up MILR.

“You’re only as young as your spirit, and here, your spirit is always young,” Thorvik said.

Members of MILR use the peer-learning model to teach one another about diverse subjects like film and history in study groups of about 20.

“[There are no] so-called experts…talking down to the members,” Carolynn Rafman, MILR’s Program Coordinator said.

Mebbie Aikens, another member, stressed that peer learning is academic.

“You have to work at it. There are no marks or anything, but it’s not just fun and games.”

Entirely volunteer-run, MILR was set up by 100 members in 1989 as a day program for older students at the McGill Centre for Continuing Education. De Rochemont said that its founders were guided by the feeling that “yes, we can do things too,” an attitude that continues to permeate MILR as it has expanded to 800 members.

If MILR members join to learn, they stay because of the social network the program provides. Rafman explained that friendships made at MILR assuage the isolation that can come with old age.

“[MILR] serves as a gathering place…a place to learn, to share experiences.”

MILR’s peer-learning model makes possible a unique learning experience unavailable in any book.

“The richness of MILR is that everyone brings some of their background; everyone brings something unique that they have lived,” de Rochemont said. “I cannot learn about this without someone who has lived it…telling me about it.”

MILR attracts seniors from diverse backgrounds. About three quarters of members, according to Rafman, have higher degrees and want to fill in other parts of their education. MILR has no entrance requirements; people from all different backgrounds are welcome. Rafman described the members, as “lively and intellectually curious,” necessary qualities when learning depends on nothing more than a love of it.

Santropol Roulant

Erin O’Callaghan

I have eaten at Café Santropol countless times and I walk past it every day, but it wasn’t until last week that I stopped to take a look at what was happening across the street. In 1995 two waiters from Café Santropol, Chris Godsall and Keith Fitzpatrick, came up with the idea of founding a volunteer-based meals-on-wheels service for the surrounding neighbourhoods. 14 years later, Santropol Roulant is still housed at Duluth and St. Urbain, and serves an ever-expanding community of elderly and disabled people.

Last Wednesday I spent an afternoon volunteering at Santropol Roulant. I worked in the kitchen, helping to package the 89 meals that were to be delivered that evening. After donning my apron and requisite hat I proceeded into the kitchen to get a taste of what goes on behind the scenes of this organization.

Santropol Roulant delivers to eight different regions around Montreal, and prepares between 70 and 120 meals per day, which are delivered every Monday through Saturday, excluding Thursdays. The operation largely depends on about 100 volunteers.

The food that Santropol Roulant cooks up each day comes partially from donations – especially fruit and vegetables – and the rest is purchased by the organization. On Wednesday we were packaging curried chicken, a choice of pasta salad or beets and carrots, fruit or garden salad, and dessert or pudding.

Santropol Roulant also accomodates the special needs of some of its clients. Vegetarian meals are offered, or volunteers will cut food into smaller pieces.

Notably, the organization focuses on connecting with the Montreal community, bringing young and old together so that they can learn from each other.

“[The] approach here is not a charity model, [it is] not [about] young people doing services for seniors…[it is] really about breaking the social isolation of the young and old,” explained Marc Nisbet, Santropol Roulant’s meals-on-wheels director.

Nisbet began volunteering with Santropol Roulant in 2001, while he was a student at Concordia, and he has worked as the meals-on-wheels director for the past four years.

“[Santropol Roulant] broke me out of a reality where you’re not challenged to be exposed to things outside of your peers,” Nisbet said. “[With Santropol Roulant] you’re exposed to different people and generations.”

While cleaning up after the packaging, Colin Fairbank, a CEGEP student and volunteer, noted that a big part of the service is about the interaction between volunteers and clients.

“[The clients] are always really happy to see [the volunteers],” Fairbank said “We might be the only people they see that day, so they are usually chatty.”

One client who is especially memorable for many volunteers is an elderly woman who lives along the McGill route.

“She felt sorry that [the students volunteering] were away from home so she invited them in for food and makes slippers,” Nisbet said. “She made about 100 pairs of slippers and handed them out to [the students]…. Students would fight for her route.”

According to Santropol Roulant’s web-site, its mission is to use food to break social and economic isolation between generations. It strives to nourish and strengthen the local community and address the health and food needs of seniors and Montrealers living with a loss of autonomy.

As Nisbet put it, “[The organization is] like a smaller community within a giant city…. [It provides] a nice way to live the city in a more human way and have access to multiple different generations and realities.”

It is this combined sense of giving and receiving that differentiates Santropol Roulant from many other volunteer organizations; the feeling of actively engaging with another person you may never have known, and possibly even making a difference in their day, is like nothing else.

The Kensington Knitters

Ben Brown

By all logic and good sense a 20-year-old male university student should feel a little out of place in a retirement home knitting circle. Nevertheless, by some Benjamin Button-esque twist of fate, I found that they are my ideal social clique: hilarious, resilient, whip-smart, and fun.

The Kensington Knitters is a group devoted to charitable work and socializing, and to be honest, they’re really making me chew over the option of spending the rest of my life in a long-term care facility.

I met Elinor Cohen and Miriam Berger, the key organizers of the knitting group, at Place Kensington, their Westmount rest home. They told me that the Knitters formed in 2000 under Berger’s supervision. Berger had been attending continued education courses at the University of Toronto when she met fellow seniors who knitted for their local churches. Inspired, she would later transplant the idea to Place Kensington.

The Kensington Knitters originally comprised over 40 members, yet due to the realities of aging – particularly weakening of the hands – the core group has since dwindled to about 15. That being said, both Cohen and Berger were quick to note that involvement takes on many forms and that residents unable to knit contribute in other ways, such as preparing balls of wool.

Cohen and Berger, both over 80, have knitted more than 100 hats, donated over 325 blankets to charity, fashioned mittens and scarves for displaced Chechnyans, organized fashion shows, and mobilized several dozen elderly long-term care patients for a charitable project. Impressive.

The Kensington Knitters’ charity of choice is Montreal’s Dans La Rue, a non-profit organization founded by Father Emmett Johns. The organization assists young people living on the street and youth at risk, to whom the knitters provide warm clothes and bedding.

That being said, the group isn’t only about selflessness. When asked about the more self-satisfying elements of the project, Cohen simply shouted, “It’s fun!” Berger contended that the group has been “therapeutic both socially and physiologically.” Knitting, in many cases, serves as a reparative physical activity for aging hands. Cohen claimed that after suffering a stroke several years ago, knitting helped her reclaim the dexterity of her right hand. Still, the project is most concretely rooted in goodwill. Berger noted that, “we socialize and it’s an activity, but it has meaning.”

Aid and amusement are merged in the group’s annual fashion show. Each November, the Knitters assemble with the help of local church members to display the pieces that they have been working on. The fashion show is complete with an MC and music, providing a unique source of excitement in Place Kensington. As for the models, forget Kate Moss and Agyness Deyn; it’s the residents of Place Kensington who drape themselves in the fruits of the Knitters’ labour. Berger jokingly quipped, “we’re very sexy at age 80 and 90!” And sex seems to sell: the knitters’ last sale of blankets and clothing raised over $1,500 for the Social Service department’s children’s hospital.

One can imagine how difficult it is to keep an operation like this afloat, but Cohen and Berger don’t give much creedence to any talk of slowing down. As the knitting group’s slogan attests, “one is never too old to care.”