Lawrence Tomkow runs his hand along the top of one of the picnic tables outside of the Virginia Park Lodge. The outdoor space is used for gatherings, outdoor meals, and behind Tomkow is a garden with a wood laced lattice. The residents and tenants living between the four Virginia Park buildings (three apartments and one lodge) use the garden to grow flowers and their own vegetables. Tomkow’s eyes move from the picnic table and land on the wood frame around the garden’s lattice.

“I think I did a pretty good job with these,” Tomkow says, nodding with pride.

Tomkow spent the summer refinishing many of the wooden outdoor features around Virignia Park, from the picnic tables and park benches to the wood finishings around the exterior of the building. For Tomkow, not only was refinishing all of wooden outdoor wooden details something to help keep him busy over the summer, it was something he noticed early on needed to be done.

Lawrence at Virginia Park (2)

“They hadn’t been fixed up in quite a while,” Tomkow says. “So I figured, why not? I’ll fix them up. It needs to be done, so I’ll do it.”

Tomkow moved to Virginia Park in 2013 but was already used to lending a hand whenever he could. He explains that he used to live in a condo complex where he helped with the upkeep of the grounds. At 70 years old, he still doesn’t shy away from hard work. Before his retirement, he worked in transferring patients at the Royal Alexandra Hospital between wards. So, sanding down and re-staining some outdoor wood features is relatively simple work for Tomkow.

Lawrence at Virginia Park (3)

In addition to his help with the outdoor wooden features, Tomkow also takes it upon himself to sweep up all the surrounding parking lots around Virginia Park after the winter thaw, making sure all of the sand and salt is off the concrete for his neighbours and visitors to park at.

“For a couple of hours a day, it’s not going to kill me,” Tomkow says with a laugh about all the work he does for the community he calls home. Though he doesn’t have any plans yet for what his projects will be over the winter and into next summer, he knows there’s always something he can lend a hand with around Virginia Park.

Tomkow looks back to the wood frame around the lattice, running his hand along the smooth wood finish. His laugh is distinct and contagious and he’s always willing to make himself the butt of a joke. “I had to be careful while staining the frame here,” he says with a growing grin and a chuckle. “The gardeners here would kill me if I got any stain on the plants.”

Lawrence at Virginia Park (4)

While working as the head of the 124 Street Business Association, Helen Nolan received a call from a couple with a new business idea. The couple had been rejected by two other business associations in Edmonton before calling Nolan. She loved the business plan and got right to work making sure the rest of the association was on board for this new business venture.

“If I want something, watch out!” Nolan exclaims with a laugh. “The business plan was just so unique and I knew that 124 Street would benefit from this new business tremendously.”

Helen's Park (3)

A short while later, Duchess Bake Shop opened its doors and quickly became a staple not for just 124 Street, but for Edmonton as a whole. To this day, Edmontonians venture out to the Westmount neighbourhood solely for macarons and other French baked delights. Nolan’s business savvy and community building know-how made her 15 years with the 124 Street Business Association crucial in the area’s development as it’s become one of Edmonton’s new favourite areas for food and culture.

To commemorate her contributions, the park on the corner of 124 Street and 108 Avenue will be named after Nolan with a big celebration taking place on Saturday, September 23, 2017, starting at 1:00 p.m. For Nolan, her commitment to her work as the Executive Director with the 124 Street Business Association stems from early years.

Park 1

“I grew up in Mitchell, Ontario, a small town where I was related to half of the population,” Nolan explains. “My whole family was in business there and that’s where I learned that small business is truly the back bone of our country.”

In 1960, Nolan married a Member of Parliament from Hamilton, Onatrio, and found her passion for politics, remaining a champion for small businesses in the area. The couple eventually moved to Calgary for work, and then to Edmonton a short while later in 1987. She immediately embraced the city. “I remember taking a bus trip in and looking at the Hotel MacDonald and looking into the River Valley and thinking just how beautiful Edmonton was,” she reminisces. “Since moving to Edmonton, I’ve never looked back.”

Park 2

It didn’t take long for Nolan to build connections around Edmonton both in business and in politics (she even ran for City Council for Ward 1 in 1992). At 75 years old, she finally decided to retire. A couple of years after that, she moved into Pleasantview Place, where she now focuses on her creative and artistic side.

“I’ve been singing jazz professionally for about 60 years,” Nolan says. “I’ve done shows with big bands and small quartets all over Canada.”

You can still find Nolan singing with her trio for the seniors at Cantebury Manor, Devonshire, and other venues around the city. She also volunteers with Pleasantview Place working with some of the other residents and tenants in a drama group. Nolan explains that the group had so much fun with the plays, they took the show on the road and performed for other GEF Seniors Housing buildings.

Helen's Park (2)

For Nolan, the park dedication is a happy by-product of a life working to make other people’s lives better. Whether it’s joy and entertainment from singing an Ella Fitzgerald classic or finding business opportunities to help build communities, Nolan’s drive to keep going isn’t slowing down. Now at age 81, Nolan describes herself as having a bubble of happiness in her that spills out.

“Every day I want to do something positive,” says Nolan. “Even if it’s just saying hello to someone at the grocery store. I never miss an opportunity to say hello or say something silly. So many people put up walls around themselves, especially as they get older. They shut out life. I want to open up my heart and keep embracing life.”

Park 3

Kay Robertson stands off to the side of the common sitting area at Beverly Place lodge. Three tables of men and women leaning over their bingo boards are laid out in front of her. They listen carefully as she calls out the numbers and letters, never stuttering or muttering as she draws each new ball.

Calling bingo is Roberson’s favourite volunteer activity and makes up a good chunk of her very active lifestyle. At age 93, she hasn’t slowed down her volunteer efforts and was recognized by local Edmonton MP Kerry Diotte with a 2017 Volunteer Award for her hard work and dedication over many years of volunteering.

Robertson started volunteering around 44 years ago when she and her husband first moved to the Evergreen area. She volunteered with the Evergreen Community Association right up to when she moved to Porta Place Apartments in 2007. In addition to her work with the Evergreen Community Association, she volunteered with the Lauderdale community, where her son still lives. It was her work specifically with the Lauderdale community that earned her the accolade from MP Kerry Diotte. She explains that being given the award was unexpected.

“My son told me we were going for a dinner with the Lauderdale community,” Robertson recalls. “All of the sudden, they’re calling my name and giving me an award. Once the shock wore off, I got to be very happy about it.”

Kay Robertson Blog (66)

This wasn’t Robertson’s first recognition for her volunteerism. In 2010, the Edmonton City Council awarded Robertson with a plaque in recognition of her contributions to the Evergreen Community Association, signed by at the time Edmonton City Mayor Stephen Mandel. As great as the awards and recognitions are, what drives Robertson to keep volunteering is knowing how much other people appreciate the time and energy she gives.

“With the bingo games, for example, that’s all a lot of the players have to look forward to,” Robertson explains. “I grew up in a big family, there were ten of us girls and three boys, so I like people and I like doing things for people. I don’t expect anything back for it.”

The deep connections Robertson’s made with many of the other residents and tenants between the Beverly Place lodge and Porta Place Apartments has helped her understand many of her neighbours and community members better and has helped keep her motivated to continue volunteering. She points out that many of the stories she hears about hardships and turmoil makes her appreciate the good life that she’s had and to give back whatever she’s able to.

Though she isn’t able to volunteer with the Evergreen community or the Lauderdale community anymore (last year, she finally decided to stop driving and sold her car), she hasn’t necessarily reduced the amount she volunteers. She’s just found more around her home to do for her neighbours. Even on top of all the volunteer work she does, Robertson still finds as much time as she can to get outside.

Kay Robertson Blog (56)

“I’m calling bingo again on Saturday and afterward my son is picking me up and I’ll be golfing with him, my granddaughter and her husband,” Robertson lists. “We’ll get a cart and play 18 holes around the Rundle Park Golf Course. I even still have my golf clubs.”

Robertson’s energetic and active lifestyle shows what aging with a good quality of life can do for a person. When people live somewhere that allows for those opportunities to arise, they’ll give back to the community that they’re a part of. For someone like Robertson, giving back is a natural drive that helps keep her going every day.

“I have to be doing something,” Robertson says with a laugh. “I can’t sit around and stare at four walls all day. As long as I’m able, I’ll keep volunteering.”

Gordon Coolidge points to the peony bush at the back of Barvinok Apartments in Edmonton’s North East. He planted the bushes in the spring but knows, as the summer days are becoming fewer and fewer in number for the year, he has some work to do before the fall.

“I have to take the leaves and split them open,” he explains. “They need to breathe during the winter kill. Otherwise, they’ll suffocate and won’t regrow next spring.”

Gordons Garden (11)

Coolidge, always something of a green thumb, kept up his garden while he lived and worked out of Westlock up until 2006. He moved into Barvinok Place after he suffered a stroke during an 11 and a half hour triple by-pass surgery. He explains he was bounced between hospitals for more than six months to see different specialists before finally deciding moving into a seniors apartment was his best option.

“I moved in before GEF Seniors Housing started managing the building, and I right away noticed that the garden hadn’t been kept up,” Coolidge recalls. “I started by digging out the dry clay balls from over the years and I put in all the soil for a healthy garden.”

Gordons Garden (8)

What started off as activity to keep Coolidge busy evolved into a passion that he credits for helping keep him healthy and happy. He explains that gardening is no easy task and is a full body workout that keeps the 79 year old active.

The garden at Barvinok Apartments has helped to brighten up and add colour to the Beverly Heights neighbourhood and plenty of people in the community have taken notice. In the summer of 2017, the garden was nominated for a Front Yards in Bloom Award, which is a recognition program for outdoor space that adds to a greener and more sustainable urban environment.

Gordons Garden (12)

The Front Yards in Bloom program is run by the City of Edmonton, the Edmonton Horticultural Society, and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. It sees postal workers and other volunteers walk through neighbourhoods to find spaces that have aesthetically pleasing gardens or growing edible fruits and vegetables. The best spaces receive a nomination card to place in their garden. The official awards will be given out on August 24, 2017, at the former Royal Alberta Museum.

“I always had neighbours coming by to take pictures and tell me that they love the garden,” Coolidge explains. “But I never expected a recognition like a Front Yards in Bloom nomination.”

Gordons Garden (6)

As he approaches 80 years old, Coolidge has no plans to ever slow down on his gardening. He walks through his garden, pointing out the weeds he pulled before adding the pots of coleus plants alternating in purple and green, and revelling in how many bees are working hard to pollinate with the help of the flowers he planted.

“You need to have something to help you get up in the morning and get you through the day,” Coolidge says. “I don’t want to sit around and get old. You’re never old until you admit it. Until then, I’ll spend all day working in the garden.”

Gordons Garden (4)

Every year, members of knitting clubs based in GEF Seniors Housing buildings donate thousands of pieces of winter outdoor wear to local charities at an event that’s become known as the Great Knitting Giveaway. All the yarn used was donated to the knitting clubs throughout the year at the more than 40 buildings that GEF Seniors Housing currently owns or manages. The winter clothing given out ranges from toques to mittens to scarfs and even includes pieces for kids and newborns.

“This is an opportunity for the seniors to give back to their communities,” says Emily Rotella, Assistant Manager with Pleasantview Place and former Chair of the Great Knitting Giveaway event. “The people who receive the items our knitters donated doesn’t just give them warmth on the outside for the cold months, but warmth on the inside too knowing that someone cares enough to hand make a toque or a scarf that’s going to help them.”

DSC_0602

The event itself is a thank you to the knitters who made the clothing that was donated and features speakers from the charities receiving the items, telling the seniors about the kinds of people their contributions are going on to help. Charities that collect the winter clothing include the Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, Operation Friendship Seniors Society, schools in low-income areas such as St. Benedict Catholic School, and the Royal Alexandra Hospital maternity ward.

“A lot of the seniors don’t think their donations are a big deal,” Rotella says. “But, [for example], they’re giving a baby her first toque and that family is going to treasure it for their whole lives.”

The knitters meet year-round as part of their recreation programs to make the winter clothing that is eventually donated. The seniors are given new knitting patterns to continually challenge them and keep the activity interesting. For many seniors, the knitting clubs are a chance to socialize and remain close to others living in their buildings. But for some, it’s what gives them a purpose to their lives.

DSC_0045

“We have some knitters who never went to school and never learned to read,” says Rotella. “So knitting is what they can contribute to the world and it’s how they know they can help others.”

For Rotella, the Great Knitting Giveaway is an opportunity not just to show the knitting clubs from GEF Seniors Housing an appreciation for everything they do throughout the year, but also demonstrate that what would be something to pass the time for many is actually making a huge difference in Edmonton communities.

“We participated in an event at St. Benedict Catholic School where some of our seniors read to the kids and we asked how many received winter clothing from the Great Knitting Giveaway and almost all of the hands went up,” Rotella says. “That was a moment when some of our seniors realized how much of a difference their donations made. These are kids who would have gone the winter without mittens or toques and the kindness of a few knitters made sure these kids stayed warm during the winter.”

DSC_0612

On October 8, 2017, Ed Archer will turn 97 years old. When he tells people how old he is, they don’t believe him. This might be because at almost 97 years old, Archer still hasn’t really retired. After he moved into Rosslyn Terrace in 2014, he started asking around to some of the staff at the building if there was anything he could do to help.

“I’m not one to sit around for too long, I get bored,” says Archer. “If something needs to get done, if something’s broken, I just want to fix it.”

Rosslyn Place’s Site Maintenance Jim Cadzow heard that one of the tenants in the connected Rosslyn Terrace was looking for work to do and decided to see what he could help out with. Cadzow wasn’t expecting much at first and he was quickly and pleasantly surprised.

Eddie's Workshop (6)
One of the 18 benches that Ed Archer has repaired since moving into Rosslyn Terrace in 2014.

“I asked him if he was good at carpentry and he said he was, so I gave him a bench to work on, more or less to test out what he could do,” Cadzow says. “Next thing I know, he has the whole bench taken apart. He’s sanding and staining the wood and asking for new two-by-fours so he can replace some of the broken ones on the benches.”

Archer grew up on a farm in Mayerthorpe, Alberta, and explains that he took to working with his hands early on, fixing whatever he could whenever it needed to be worked on. That passion for hard work followed him throughout his retirement and, as Cadzow explains, he hasn’t lost much steam over the years.

Eddie's Workshop (1)
Jim Cadzow (left) and Ed Archer relaxing on one of the benches that Archer repaired.

“In all, Ed [Archer]’s taken apart and repaired 18 benches so far,” Cadzow says. “And this is good work. He hand cuts all the wood and replaces broken parts piece by piece. Looking at the benches, you would think they were brand new and before Ed got a hold of them, they were ready for the dumpster.”

Benches were only the start of Archer’s work around the Rosslyn buildings. Soon, he was pressure washing and repainting the gazebo in the courtyard, trimming trees, repairing the outdoor handrails, helping fix up sidewalks, and even repairing some of the mechanical equipment Cadzow was using.

Eddie's Workshop (2)
“Too bad we don’t have a before photo of the gazebo,” Cadzow comments. “You wouldn’t recognize it. Ed [Archer] made it look brand new again.”
“I had this snowblower and this rototiller, and neither worked really all that well,” says Cadzow. “So I asked Ed [Archer] if he knew anything about engines. He took apart the snowblower and rototiller, fixed them up, put them back together, and I haven’t had a problem since. They’ve never worked better.”

Cadzow quickly realized that Archer needed a designated spot to work on all of the projects he had been taking on. In the far corner of Rosslyn Terrace’s underground parking garage, a wooden sign hangs saying, “Eddie’s Workshop.” Cadzow made the sign for Archer and created a space for all the incredible work he’s been doing.

Eddie's Workshop (3)

Archer typically spends most of his days down in his workshop. He’ll head down before 8:00 a.m., bring a lunch with him, and finish up around 4:00 p.m., just like if he was still working a regular day job. Cadzow often reminds Archer that he doesn’t have to work so much, but Archer’s drive keeps him going day after day.

“I still have one bench in my workshop that I haven’t been able to finish because of a foot injury,” Archer says. “I feel like that bench is laughing at me. I need to finish it. The doctor told me I can’t work until my foot heals, and I’ll be plenty happy when it does and I get back to work.”

Eddie's Workshop (4)

Ruby Gibeault has spent the past 12 years living at Porta Place apartments in Edmonton’s Beverly Heights neighbourhood. She made the choice to move out of her house near Commonwealth Stadium and was immediately drawn to the community around her new apartment. If you ask her what she thinks of the East end area she calls home, she’ll smile wide as she tells you about the community she’s grown into.

“It’s like a little village,” says Gibeault. “It feels very senior friendly and you can walk pretty well anywhere. There’s a park just a block away that I spend a lot of time at when I’m out walking. I think most of the seniors who live in this area feel that connection to the community.”

That community connection grew when the Abbotsfield Youth Project approached the Beverly Lodge with GEF Seniors Housing and the connected Porta Place apartments to be part of Love Grows Here. The initiative sees elementary school aged kids from the North East Edmonton communities work with seniors on an art project that expresses what they think about their neighbourhood. Rebecca Prentice, another tenant with Porta Place apartments who took part in Love Grows Here, explains that having the opportunity to interact with the kids brought a whole different energy to her day.

Love Grows Here - final project 1

“There were barely any quiet moments while we were all working together,” says Prentice. “We were constantly talking and throwing around ideas and trying different things. In the end, all of the ideas came together.”

The final project that came together was a tree with a different kind of artwork on each branch. The kids each painted something that represented what they thought of their neighbourhood. Some of the seniors were nervous about trying their artistic skills, so they used a little bit of creative ingenuity to express themselves.

“I found some old magazines and clipped out the pictures and I painted around that,” says Prentice. “We all did something different to express what the Beverly neighbourhood means to us.”

Love Grows Here - Rebecca

Jean Charchuk, who lives in Beverly Lodge, wrote a poem that reflects her regular walks through the neighbourhood. She explains that she had cousins who lived in the area while she was growing up, so she always had a connection to the neighbourhood. “I’ll walk through Beverly, into Rundle Park, and down to the river,” says Charchuk. “I see a lot of things when I take these walks.”

Audrey Weir, who also lives at Porta Place apartments, painted trees and a long roadway. “It’s a memory from walking along Ada Boulevard,” says Weir, who moved into Edmonton’s North East corner in the mid-1950s. “I remembered how the trees hung over the road.”

One of the most surprising things the ladies learned was how interesting they found the kids. The mix of generations helped everyone involved learn to appreciate each other more, learning that everyone has something to give. Prentice fondly remembers the ice-breaker game they played when they all first met. They each had to put a fact about themselves into a hat, then the facilitator would draw each fact one by one and the room has to guess who the fact belonged to.

Love Grows Here - Audrey

“I think all generations need to mix,” says Prentice. “For a lot of people, they don’t get to see their grandkids, or the kids don’t get to see their grandparents. Programs like Love Grows Here help fill that void.”

After the five sessions, the final art piece was unveiled at the Abbotsfield Youth Project Society office on December 1, 2016. Since then, the piece has moved around to some of the schools in the area, to the Suncor offices (who sponsored the project), and is set to arrive back to Beverly Lodge later in 2017.

For Weir, as much as she loved creating for the final piece, she found that watching the kids create to be most intriguing. She says that to see the kids put a glob of paint on their brushes and stare off into space as they created something was really fascinating.

Love Grows Here - Jean

“I have grandkids and I’ll sometimes just sit back and watch and listen,” says Weir. “That’s when you get to see them for the people they are. I did the same with the kids while they painted and that was fun.”

Charchuk explains that she gravitated towards one of the older boys taking part in the project. She says that she noticed he was quiet and seemed to be almost daydreaming, which reminded her of herself at that same age. As the two connected, she learned how artistically talented he was and it helped to inspire her.

“I watched him draw and I remember thinking that he can really translate what he has in his head onto the canvas,” Charchuk says. “After the project, he and some of the other kids wrote me a letter to say thank you and I cried while I read it. It was such a nice letter and it meant so much to me.”

This story was originally printed in the Edmonton Journal’s Today’s Senior section in partnerhsip with Post Media and the Edmonton Seniors Coordinating Council on October 31, 2016, and in the winter 2016 edition of the Community Connections newsletter. A special big thank you to Loreen Wales from Revive Wellness and Imran Sumra from Our Parent’s Home for their help with this story.

When Chef Ana Maria Muhammad started her career with GEF Seniors Housing, she knew the kitchen at the lodge had a big responsibility.

“I quickly realized that this isn’t a restaurant, this is these seniors’ homes,” Muhammad says. She goes on to explain that she visually notices a huge difference in the people living in the lodge when the food is good. Since taking over the kitchen at Ottewell Place lodge, she’s opened up the lines to communication not just with the other staff but with the residents as well.

The idea of food playing directly into quality of life isn’t a novel concept. But the stigma around bad food in seniors’ homes is prevalent. So more chefs working in seniors environments are paying extra close attention to the food they serve and making sure they aren’t putting together menus in solitude.

Registered nutritionist and CEO of Revive Wellness Loreen Wales is excited to see this as a growing trend in seniors housing. She previously worked in a number of hospitals and explains that the food she saw being served to very sick people wasn’t going to do much for their health.

“People have a desire for that sense of empowerment and no one wants to feel like they’re being force-fed something,” Wales says. “Food is exciting! So much of our lives revolve around eating and the food we serve to people shouldn’t just be different components slopped together with no thought to taste.”

Wales explains that seniors are at a greater risk of malnutrition which can lead to a drop in immune-response and sarcopenia, a rapid loss of muscle mass in the body. She points out that seniors who eat better tend to live longer and don’t experience as many typical aging issues as quickly.

Chef Imran Sumra, Hospitality Manager at Our Parent’s Home in downtown Edmonton, prides his kitchen on fresh ingredients and quality meals for his menus. He holds both a Red Seal designation and a Diploma in Food and Nutrition Management and uses his wide knowledge base in his kitchen to create meals that follows closely the nutritional needs of seniors while still appealing to the residents’ palettes.

“A lot of seniors start to lose their appetites because of things like medications,” says Sumra. “So there has to be flavour and there has to be meals that they want to eat otherwise they simply won’t have that great quality of life we want them to have.”

Sumra’s focus on fresh ingredients plays both into how nutrients from herbs and vegetables are better absorbed into the body when they’re fresh but also the difference in quality. Our Parent’s Home’s kitchen boasts entrees from prime rib and steak to curries and lamb. For Sumra, he knows following budgets are important, but he will focus on quality over cost any day.

For Muhammed, opening up the lines of communication to the residents has meant she’s been able to expand the menu into working with some of the residents’ own home recipes while still working within the prescribed guidelines from the Canada Food Guide. GEF Seniors Housing works closely with Revive Wellness to review the menus and ensure that all the important points of nutrition are being met, while still making food that the residents are going to enjoy.

“I love that I get to keep learning about all these different foods,” Muhammed says. “The residents’ feedback helps make sure that everyone in the kitchen is always improving and getting better at what they do to make our residents happy.”

Muhammad’s passion for food easily translated into her work with seniors. “I just think about how much I love my parents,” she says. “And I look at the residents like they’re my parents too. What I serve from my kitchen, I would serve to my own parents.”

This story was originally written and published for the 2016 Sage Awards and for GEF Seniors Housing’s 2015 Annual Report.

In June 2015, the City of Edmonton decided to remove the bus stop that was located directly in front of Gateway Manor, where both Mary McVeeters and Shirley Baynes live. The City cited a lack of usage of the bus stop, claiming that fewer than one person a day used the bus from the stop, as the reason why they removed it. In a short letter given to the residents of Gateway Manor, the City explained that beginning September 6, the bus would no longer stop in front of their home. (more…)