By: Kristian Partington
On a sunny afternoon at the end of May, two old friends sit upon a green bench in a park-like setting in the city of Guelph. They are busy men in their senior years and it’s been some time since they’ve shared time and space together, though their conversation flows as freely as if no time has passed at all.
They are men of wisdom, earned through lifetimes spent in the service of community, and in their cases, the definition of community is broad. The Right Honourable David Johnston grew from humble upbringings in northern Ontario where he played hockey with Hall of Famers Phil and Tony Esposito before eventually earning a place in Harvard University’s Sports Hall of Fame along with a BA from the Ivy League institution. After a distinguished career in academia as a professor of law and eventually, principal and vice-chancellor of two of Canada’s most reputable universities, he served as Canada’s 28th Governor General.
The friend beside him in this sunny spring day is Ron Schlegel, a dedicated academic in his own right, a philanthropist with a passion for building strong, connected communities and the visionary behind the creation of Schlegel Villages. The bench they sit upon is a symbol of elder wisdom, and throughout the month of June benches like this will spring up in parks and public place in cities across Ontario. Residents of Schlegel Villages will sit upon them, inviting passersby to join them in conversation while reminding their communities of the vast wealth of wisdom contained in the stories of society’s oldest generations.
Ron and David share stories between them this day. They talk of wisdom gained throughout the years – not the kind taught in university lecture halls or boardrooms, but that which is earned through life experience and the failures that so often define it. They talk of finding satisfaction in the joy of others, and seeing that in the eyes of their children and grandchildren.
“If you are a father or grandfather, as we both are, your aspirations are a little different than they were at 21 and you see your satisfaction in the joy of others,” David says as Ron nods in agreement. “I suppose that’s what I hope those of us who’ve been on this planet earth for almost eight decades can share with others.”
The entire concept of the Green Bench and the #ElderWisdom campaign during senior’s month is to encourage this type of sharing.
“Seniors have so much to give and it’s important to start sharing some of that wisdom,” Ron says. “We tend to put seniors off to the side in our society; we need to bring them out to the centre.”
David points out that isolation, not only among seniors but across all age groups in the wake of the digital revolution, is a great danger, and the simple act of taking time to spend a few moments upon a bench in conversation can symbolize a way past this concern.
“We have become, in a sense, a little less human in relationships . . . and I think isolation is one of the great problems in our society,” he says. “There is great comfort, great knowledge and great opportunity in bridging those generational gaps and seeing isolation as very much an enemy, very much a danger, very much something that should be seen as an obstacle to be overcome and diminished.”
The green bench and the wisdom of our elders it represents is a place for rest and reflection, a place to ask questions and offer advice. Upon it, even if only for a moment, the world can stop turning and two people can find connection. Within the ever-quickening pace of society, this concept offers simple respite, and all are welcome to take part and honour the beauty of human connectivity.