99-year-old and high school student find unlikely friendship

When 99-year-old Chilliwack, B.C., resident Myrtle MacDonald got paired up with a 17-year-old high school student for weekly chats, she was pleasantly surprised.

“I just found her more interested and less in a hurry than I expected. It has filled an empty spot,” she said. 

MacDonald’s family is scattered across the country and all of the in-person programs she typically attends are cancelled because of COVID-19. The isolation prompted her to sign up to be one of 53 seniors in her community now matched by a local program with 47 young people.

Jaelyn Bjornerud-Brown was paired with MacDonald based on their common interest — nursing.

“I miss out on a lot of those experiences so getting to talk to someone who has 99, almost 100, years of experience, it’s been wonderful,” said Bjornerud-Brown.

Many of the pairs meet on Zoom, but for these two it’s been strictly old-fashioned phone calls. 

For the high school students participating, the time spent with seniors can be used toward volunteer hours needed for graduation. They’re supposed to speak for 30 minutes each week, but many go far beyond that.

“I love and look forward to getting to talk to her every week. [We talk] about an hour and 15 minutes, the time just goes by so quickly,” said Bjornerud-Brown.

MacDonald and Bjornerud-Brown say they are learning from each other and look forward to their conversations. (CBC)

Life of traveling and helping

MacDonald, a former nurse, spent much of her life teaching and living in other parts of the world helping vulnerable people. She lived in India for more than a decade, worked in a refugee camp in Thailand, did public health in Pakistan and South Africa, and had assignments in six provinces in Canada.

The stories are inspiring to Bjornerud-Brown, who also wants to become a nurse. Now, she too has dreams of seeing other countries.

“In high school they kind of say you go to school, you get a job, you have kids. It’s a linear thing [but] talking to her has made me realize I don’t have to limit myself to one thing. I can have it all,” she said. 

MacDonald jokes that she fills up most of the time talking but she admits, she is learning as well.

Bjornerud-Brown says she thinks MacDonald is “getting to learn a little bit more” about the world. 

The program has paired 53 seniors in the community with 47 young people. (CBC)

Turning away applicants

The Compassionate Neighbourhood Health Partners Society in Chilliwack started the program after seeing a need for more human connections during the pandemic.

“Youth are struggling and can’t get their volunteer hours. And seniors can’t meet with their [families] like they normally did. And there’s been a huge positive response from them,” said the organization’s Connie Stam.

Some of the seniors were hesitant at first, not knowing if they’d have enough to say, but that thought quickly changed as the experience set in, she says.

“We have a 94-year-old man connected with a 16-year-old and he is writing his memoir for him. The 16-year-old says it’s just amazing all the stories.”

Another woman in her mid-70s is learning Microsoft Excel from a Grade 11 student.

The program is so popular, Stam has had to turn away applicants from across the province and some from as far away as Ontario. Everything ends at the end of March but Stam says she’s already hearing from many who say they’ll continue to talk long after that.

That includes MacDonald who says she looks forward to keeping the friendship going. But she has one request of other young people: Make sure to spend time with grandparents and great-grandparents.

“Realize that they have wonderful memories that shouldn’t be lost,” she said. 

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