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The Teri Project

New virtual placement initiative seeks to ease loneliness of long-term care residents amid COVID-19 pandemic
By: Madeleine McGreevy
April 12, 2021
Taryn Cichelli with Teri Truscott

Photo: Taryn Cicchelli (Child and Youth Care ‘18), left, and Teri Truscott, right, formed a rich, intergenerational friendship as students at Ryerson. Their relationship inspired the Teri Project, a virtual placement initiative that seeks to connect students and long-term care residents in meaningful ways.

A few years ago, Taryn Cicchelli (Child and Youth Care ‘18) was giving a presentation in class, when an elderly woman began heckling her. “I had my hair in these little buns … and she was yelling ‘kitty cat, kitty cat, you’re a kitty cat,’ Cicchelli recalls, smiling.

After the awkward encounter, the elderly woman, Teri Truscott, struck up a conversation with Cichelli. Despite the age gap (Cicchelli was in her early 20s at the time) a new, and somewhat unconventional, friendship blossomed between the two.  

“We were best friends,” Cicchelli says. “We were inseparable. We would talk on the phone multiple times a week … we would go to Balzac’s and the Student Learning Centre. She was very, very, very social … she would just yell to people: ‘hi sweetie, hi people!’”

Truscott became an undergraduate student in the School of Child and Youth Care at the age of 72. Decades older than her peers, she had multiple disabilities and was marginalized in a variety of ways.

“She was a little bit like a fish out of water,” says Kiaras Gharabaghi, professor, School of Child and Youth Care, who, together with Cicchelli, created the Teri Project and funds it through his role as John C. Eaton Chair of Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Faculty of Community Services (FCS).

“It was initially very difficult for students to make sense of the way in which Teri would become present in the class,” he says. “When somebody appears in the community that looks different, feels different, and sounds different, the first instinct on the part of students is to step away, step back, and try not to engage. Teri’s appearance in our classrooms looked exactly as all forms of exclusion and marginalization look.”

Cicchelli’s friendship with Truscott changed everything. “Taryn essentially brought her relationship with Teri into a community in such a way that it took down barriers for other people to think differently about relationships,” he says. “Other students became more interested, and Teri became more included in group projects. So from that one relationship, a community emerged in a way that it had not emerged before.”  

Sadly, Truscott passed away suddenly in 2019 after a brief bout with pneumonia. Unable to contact Cicchelli for support, Truscott was taken to hospital by a personal support worker and died alone. “We began to understand the tragedy of loneliness and aloneness in the lives of eldery people, especially highly marginalized elderly people,” Gharabaghi says, of the experience.  

Truscott had a significant positive impact on many in the School of Child and Youth Care. And so the Teri Project was born, named after Truscott in celebration of her life, her courage, her spirit and her legacy. “It’s a project intended to help people feel less alone,” Cichelli, who coordinates the project under the supervision of Gharabaghi, says.  

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, outbreaks have ravaged many long-term care homes across Canada. Severe lockdowns have isolated long-term care residents from friends, family and community members. “A lot of people are facing extreme amounts of loneliness and isolation,” Cichelli explains.

The Teri Project matches students in FCS with residents of long-term care homes for regular, virtual sessions to facilitate intergenerational relationships based on mutual respect, empathy and care. The virtual sessions represent a new kind of field education opportunity for students to engage in authentic relationships with vulnerable community members. “At the core, it’s connecting people to have a friend, to have someone new to talk to,” Cichelli says.  

“We have students who have learning needs. We have elderly people in institutional contexts that are less than perfect. And we have a dire need for connection both for students and their well-being and for elderly people and their well-being,” Gharabaghi says.  

Currently, the pilot project has matched two undergraduate students in the School of Child and Youth Care, Amy Mather and Annisha Sritharan, with long-term residents in Seven Oaks, Mapleview Lodge and St. Clair O'Connor Community Inc.

“I believe the older generation has a lot to tell, and we can learn a lot from them,” Sritharan says. “It makes me happy, and I gain a lot from the relationship in the sense that [my partner] teaches me a lot about life.”  

“There is something very unique I think around intergenerational relationships because we are connecting to our future,” Gharabaghi says. “When we think about elderly people we often think about their past, but we need to think about our future and recognize ourselves in our way of being within that relationship.”  

A secondary goal of the project is for students and seniors to engage in art activities together, and ultimately bring the stories of elderly people to life through narrative and visual representation. Sritharan’s partner enjoys knitting. As a means to connect, Sritharan has started to learn to knit, and plans to make something together with her partner over the next few weeks.

Mather was somewhat surprised to be paired with a younger long-term care resident who is in her 40s. “It’s been really good in building that awareness that it’s not just elderly folks who are living in these long-term care homes, it’s not just elderly folks who need that support,” she says. “It’s been a really cool opportunity to learn about their unique life stories and learn from their experiences.”  

Both students are accustomed to working with younger populations through their experiences in the child and youth care program and in the field. The chance to engage with adult long-term care residents has allowed them to broaden their skills and step outside of their comfort zone. “It’s forcing us to … be more human and really come back to those personality traits and communication styles and just be authentic,” Mather says.    

The pilot project has, so far, been a success. “We’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback,” says Cicchelli. “From the residents saying how much they enjoy their weekly talks with the students, they look forward to it, and the students seem to really enjoy it.”  

“The response from the sector has been very, very positive,” Gharabaghi says. He hopes to scale the Teri Project to involve many more FCS students, elderly people and service providers -- right across the province.

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