How a Group of Mothers and Babies is Bringing Joy Into Seniors’ Residences

Babies Who Volunteer helps Ontario seniors form healing bonds with infants and their mothers.

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Babies Who Volunteer
Photo: Jessica Deeks

Discovering the Baby Effect

It’s “baby day” at the Chartwell Riverpark seniors’ residence in Ottawa—a twice-monthly event Eulah Johnson, 90, never misses. “I really enjoy it. It’s a diversion from the regular routine,” says the retired nurse with eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren of her own.

Today, Johnson sits on a sofa in the home’s reception room and beams at a giggling toddler perched on the seat of her walker. After a few moments, the girl skips off to play with the dozen or so other small children and infants mingling with 20 of Johnson’s fellow residents.

As the seniors munch on snacks and sip tea or coffee, their young guests crawl around, scribble in colouring books, bat smiley-face balloons back and forth or snooze in the arms of delighted residents.

The energy in the room is remarkably calm—not a fussy baby in sight. Some, like 12-month-old Owen, are regular visitors to Ottawa-area seniors’ homes. “We’ve been doing this since he was three months old,” says his mother, Allison Rodgers, 33.

She loves the social calls, too: “I didn’t have grandparents growing up. It’s nice to spend time with older people, and it feels good to know they’re getting so much out of it.”

Babies Who Volunteer, the initiative bringing these generations together, is the inspired idea of Jessica Turner, a mother of three and a former educational assistant. Her two daughters, 22-month-old Amelia and seven-year-old Hope, are among the kids at the Riverpark event; her eldest, 11-year-old Aiden, attends from time to time.

Turner’s affinity for elderly people goes back decades: at the age of eight, she would visit the residence next door to where she lived to “hang out” and help with meals. She soon became a regular volunteer.

The idea for her current project came about during a March 2018 visit with Amelia to a friend’s mother, who was living with dementia in a long-term-care facility. “People flocked to Amelia,  wanting to reach out and make contact with her,” says Turner.

She was most surprised by the response of her friend’s mother: she hadn’t spoken in two years, but with Amelia in her lap, she began singing.

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Senior woman reading book to young baby
Photo: Shutterstock

A Growing Organization

Turner went home and immediately put out a call on a moms’ Facebook group: would anyone be interested in dropping by seniors’ residences with their babies? One hundred women said yes. A year later, there are now 1,500 volunteers, and the organization visits 39 homes in the Ottawa and Kingston regions.

Everyone benefits from intergenerational programs, she says. “This playgroup is good for the mothers, too. They’re giving something to the community, which provides a sense of purpose and belonging. It can really help someone who is feeling isolated.”

Local interest is growing: the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Foundation, for example, has donated $25,000, much of it earmarked for things such as toy bags, blankets, social-media management and outreach. With the help of charitable donations, Turner hopes to expand programming from baby visits to having school kids enga­ging with elderly pen pals, and seniors teaching kids how to bake or knit.

Chartwell Riverpark activity aide Beverly Townson knows just how valuable Babies Who Volunteer can be. “It’s the best thing we’ve ever had,” she says. “I love seeing the responses, especially from the memory-loss group. They just light up.”

Townson sent a video of the most recent visit to the son of one resident, a woman with advanced Alzheimer’s who is unable to speak but who smiles and claps and engages with the babies. “It made him happy to see that she’s not sitting alone in her room, that she’s enjoying herself.”

Learn about the B.C. town that’s being hailed as Canada’s paradise for seniors.

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada

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