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Doug Hickey Wins Hearts and Minds Through Cyber-Seniors Program

by Drew Tapley


We all remember that teacher at high school who made a difference in our early lives. Doug Hickey is one such teacher. After 30 years working for IBM, he took early retirement and enrolled in teacher training college. That was ten years ago. He is now a grade 10 and 11 Math and Careers teacher at Keswick High School in Ontario, and runs the Leadership Program to develop skills in communication, interpersonal relations, coaching and conflict management.

He has a unique approach to his teaching style. 

“They don’t particularly remember the quadratic or linear equations I taught them,” he says. “They remember the goofiness and how I treated them right. And by the way—they learned a lot of stuff along the way.”

One option for his Leadership students is the Cyber-Seniors program run in partnership with the local Cedarvale Lodge Retirement and Care Community. Student mentors introduce residents to the Internet and its many communication tools like email, Google, Facebook, Skype and YouTube. They meet with residents in the school library once a week for two hours over an eight week period. 

Doug found out about the program through Emily Curcuruto, a lifestyle consultant at Cedarvale Lodge. They worked together for a month to figure out what it would look like. 

“From day one, Doug helped make this experience unique, positive and exciting,” says Emily. “When I turn the van into the school parking lot, the residents beam with excitement, eyes wide, yelling, ‘Where’s Doug? What do you think he’s wearing today?’” 

This was quickly followed by a roar of laughter when they spot him outside the school entrance wearing an air traffic controller outfit, or a Santa hat and Christmas bells, playing his harmonica. 

Doug has been teaching the ministry-approved Leadership Program for four years, and this is the first time Cyber-Seniors has been offered through the partnership with Cedarvale Lodge. The seniors on the program range in age from 70 to 97 years.

“How do I get eleven seniors, six walkers and four residents with canes into the school and upstairs to the library?” he asks. “You wouldn’t believe the number of kids who help us!” 

It took a bit of creative thinking to break the ice with an intergenerational divide of up to 80 years, in some cases.  

“Emily and I decided there would be no teaching on the first day. We were just going to let the kids meet the seniors. Our students gave them a one-on-one tour of the school, and developed a personal relationship,” said Doug.  

When it came time to doing the actual teaching, he wanted to dazzle the residents with technology. And it worked. Upon finding their former homes or schools on Google Maps, there was disbelief, a few tears, and a lot of joy. 

“It’s so much more than technology. It’s about pulling out these memories, and making personal connections,” says Doug. “It’s like Christmas dinner. It’s not the dinner that’s important. It’s the family get-together. The technology is the excuse.” 

Doug’s wife has been an elementary school teacher for 27 years. “My wife and I were talking about the highlights in our careers, and Cyber-Seniors is absolutely in my top ten.” 

The father of five knows he’s older than the average teacher, but sees this as an advantage. “I was in business for 30 years—manufacturing, sales, marketing and management. About five years before I became a teacher, my wife and I were in a restaurant. This kid comes running over and wraps his arms around her. He said, ‘I haven’t seen you since grade 4. You taught me drama, and gave me the courage to go to acting school.’ I’ve never had customers wrap their arms around me and thank me for the product I sold them. I had to get a piece of this, and went back to university full-time, got my teaching degree, and here I am. And I try to use it all.” 

His three decades of business experience comes in handy. “We talk about situational leadership styles, and how power is used and abused. I ask them, ‘What are the three qualities you want in a teacher?’ And without fail—number one is fun and humour; two is fairness and chill; and three is to learn stuff. I give them humour, I treat them fairly—and man, do they learn stuff.” 

Doug wants his students to understand that they are not just teaching technology to seniors. They are delivering benefits and helping them to communicate. 

“I want them to realize that until you get hearts, you can’t get minds. My students are learning and demonstrating patience, providing compassionate instruction, and using leadership models we have explored in class. Their self-confidence is building day by day, and I know that this experience will be a highlight of their time in high school.”

Many of the residents have great-grandchildren they are now in contact with through social media, thanks to the Cyber-Seniors program at the school. They have been able to connect meaningfully via the Internet, explore topics of interest, learn about new ones, and access sources of entertainment. 

Following the completion of the program, a graduation ceremony was held at the retirement home. Residents wore the traditional academic cap and gown, and were accompanied by their student mentors into a decorated graduation hall full of family and friends. 

See the students and seniors in action in this video that documents the program:



Drew Tapley

Drew Tapley is a writer in the marketing and communications department of Sienna Senior Living.

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