About six years ago, a Facebook friend nominated Katie Mahoney to do an act of kindness. She opted to spend some time with an older woman in Halifax where they both live. “I saw her doing acts of kindness and volunteering,” she says. In return, Mahoney and what she calls her friend-in-the-making spent an entire day together doing just what her new friend wanted – getting their nails done and grocery shopping.
The seeds of what is today the We Are Young Association were planted during that experience. Today, the Nova Scotia non-profit, which Mahoney co-founded with Cape Breton-native Cara Chisholm, is making wishes come true for older individuals throughout the province.
The volunteer-run organization, launched in 2015, reflects what Mahoney learned firsthand spending personal time with her new friend. First, older people are often focused on the needs of others to the detriment of themselves. Second, their wishes may be small, but are meaningful. We Are Young (WAY) makes them come true.
The first wish the organization granted was for Joan who wanted to pay tribute to her son who had passed away. She wished to get her first tattoo – a rainbow heart – in his honour. WAY ‘inked’ the deal for her. “Now she gets to look at her arm and fill her heart every day,” says Mahoney.
Jim Legge, 72, had yearned to be a pilot when he was younger, but was told he was too tall to fit into a cockpit. He gave up on that dream. WAY helped to re-ignite it when they arranged for him to fly a glider plane.
For 73-year-old Colleen Tanner, her desire was to ride a Zamboni since, in her day, it was only men who got behind the wheel of the roughly 4400 kg machine to resurface ice rinks. To the cheers of hockey fans in Sydney, N.S., Colleen rewrote that history and her own.
Meanwhile, Theresa Smith, 93, wanted to fly over Susie Lake outside Halifax where she had picked blueberries and swam as a child with her five sisters. To do that she rose into the skies on her first helicopter ride as co-pilot.
“With every wish comes a story,” says Mahoney, 26, who works full-time with the Nova Scotia
To the extent funding will allow, Mahoney and Chisholm are eager to make all the wishes asked of WAY come true. The co-founders even spend their own money to make that happen. Marie, for example, wanted to attend the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade in New York City. Mahoney and Chisholm went with her – at their own expense.
Wishes are waiting to be fulfilled for individuals who are at least 70 years of age and living in Nova Scotia. As well, it must be an “experience” wish. Individuals must want to do something, see something, and ultimately feel something wonderful.
While bringing a smile, a tear and a heart tug are part of making wishes for older individuals come true, the objectives of We Are Young are much broader. It is focused on changing the conversation around aging. There are three goals. First, the organization wants to bridge the generation gap. “Never the twain shall meet” may be an appropriate mantra in Rudyard Kipling’s poem about East and West, but it stands in stark opposition to the Work We Are Young is doing today.
The non-profit organization, which received submissions for 40 wishes last year, is also focused on engaging older individuals in a social activity and reducing the isolation that often accompanies aging. Finally, Mahoney and Chisholm want to honour older individuals and the vital role they play in society.
Originally the cofounders thought the individuals looking to have wishes granted would submit requests. Often, they discovered, older individuals were reluctant to ask for something themselves. Instead, it was a family member or friend who stepped up to put forward a formal request. “We encourage seniors to make a wish, but that is a generation that is very humble,” says Mahoney. “Others often make the wish for them.”
The Dalhousie University bachelor of science graduate urges families to start the wish-making process with a discussion. “It all starts with a conversation,” she says. “Many wishes can be made without WAY.”
Many older adults would be thrilled to have someone spend time with them in a park, enjoy a movie together, or indulge in an ice-cream sundae. “You won’t know,” notes Mahoney, “until you start the dialogue.”