“If somebody new needs something or wants something, I’ll take them, no problem,” says Hilda Anderson. “We make fast friends here.” At Holland Gardens, a new community in Bradford Ontario, Hilda is a community ambassador, an important role where she helps people transition into the life of a retirement community. Hilda’s community is one of many across the country where people take on this role as a formal practice important to the life of the community.
“It’s one of the things I like best about our community,” says April Johnstone at the Redwoods in Ottawa. “Our welcoming committee is completely resident-run. They do visits and they’re very open to communication quite often. As management, we answer as many questions as we can and clarify anything for them, but it’s definitely more meaningful to people to have questions answered by a peer.”
After the first two weeks, new residents will have met everyone on the welcoming committee, so when they do come down for cocktails or coffee or a movie, usually there’s a couple of familiar faces in the crowd already.
People who participate in welcoming and mentoring newcomers relish their helpful role. Margaret Harvey’s role is to escort newcomers down to their table for meals. “It’s a small part,” she says with typical modesty.
But Johnstone sees the effects these small mercies have on people in the community. “Her role is something that our new residents benefit from really well because everything is new to them. And other roles are just as helpful.” One of the things that people find hardest to let go of from their perhaps-long-time family home is the sheer familiarity. “New members find it really comforting to have that one-to-one with someone who has been here for a while and gone through the transition themselves.”
At Credit River Retirement Residence in Mississauga, Jill Somerville is similarly proud of the work her ‘ambassadors’ do. “They help with many different things. We have food committees, they help with orientation, and so often it leads to first friendships in the community, for people who are new here.”
People gravitate to the ambassador role who are naturally good at that kind of thing, she adds. “People who really want to help tend to come into it with a serving attitude. Maybe they’ve volunteered before, or quite often, they’ve had jobs that were like that, teaching or serving in the community as hockey coaches or roles like that. A lot of our ambassadors are the kind of people who want to give back. They get a good feeling from helping people settle in. ”
The same holds true in other communities. At Holland Gardens, Hilda uses comfort skills she gained over many years working as a nurse. “I seem to know people when they come in, I can read them a little bit,” she says. “As a nurse, I dealt with a lot of different people. I’m interested in making them comfortable. I just love being able to help people. I help them just by talking to them and being gentle with them.”
At the Redwoods, Johnstone says there is no shortage of people with this servant mindset. “There are about eight or nine of our residents that are on the committee ... a couple that do visits, a couple that do escorting, a couple that arrange a welcoming tea. After the first two weeks, new residents will have met everyone on the welcoming committee, so when they do come down for cocktails or coffee or a movie, usually there’s a couple of familiar faces in the crowd already, so it really helps.”
Of course, there’s a predictable side effect to mentorship. At Delmanor Glen Abbey in Oakville, Adelaide Cunningham reminisces with Ida Fiesser, “Ida was my ambassador when I moved in here. We’re very good friends now.” Adelaide herself is now an enthusiastic ambassador. “We’re notified when there’s someone moving in. We’re given their names and we learn their likes and dislikes and a little info about them. You talk to them and ask if there’s anything they would like to know about, here, where the washing machines are, where the pub is and where the dining room is.”
Meeting friendly faces is part and parcel of life in any retirement community. At Oakcrossing Retirement Living in London, Art Thompson says the absence of a formal committee is no problem. “My friend Jim is usually the one who, if he sees someone new, sitting by themselves, he’ll get up and introduce himself.” However, ask Holly Jordan, director of community relations, and she’ll tell you that Art himself is just as much a part of the impromptu welcoming committee there. “I always make sure people get to meet him,” she says.
Really, though, you’d be able to tell based on the enthusiasm Art has for life there. “We had some new people coming in, just for lunch,” he says. “And they told us, ‘we can’t believe the chatting you folks do!’ There’s always a lot of conversation around the whole dining room. That’s just how it is here.”