In the golden light of sunset, two dozen people sit in white Muskoka chairs around a bonfire, singing. A light breeze blows off the pristine lake a few feet away as they lift their voices in renditions of King of the Road, Red River Valley and Mockingbird Hill.
This could be any summer retreat in the vast wilderness of the Canadian Shield. Except that here, the average age of the campers is about 90 and all of them are war veterans.
Ernie Weidner, 91, accompanying the singing on harmonica, was a gunner on a merchant ship; spry Jack Ford, 90, who uses a tambourine as a boater hat while dancing a jig, was a photographer with the air force; Norm Cook, 96, tapping away at a djambe, served in a tank brigade.
Every summer, roughly 40 residents of Toronto's Sunnybrook Veterans' Centre and Parkwood Hospital in London, Ont., board buses and make the trek to Lake Joseph for four days. The program, which has been running for 17 years, involves a large crew of staff. They use facilities run by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, which include a series of cabins connected by a boardwalk, making the whole place accessible to wheelchairs and walkers. Funding for the program is provided by the Royal Canadian Legion.
Since Sunnybrook began this tradition 17 years ago, the average age of the vets has steadily risen and so, too, have the number of medical conditions – a handful of campers have dementia, for instance – but staff have found ways to keep the program going, in what could serve as a model for other such camps geared toward senior citizens.
"We try to look at someone as a person, not just as a patient, and this helps. In a non-structured environment like this, people get to know each other in a whole different way," says Sunnybrook's Debbie King-Totty. "When the residents get here, they look like kids on their way to camp for the first time."
You could certainly say that for Bernard Julott, a 96-year-old D-Day veteran, as he paddles around the lake with a counsellor, reminiscing about his adolescence before the war. One summer, he visited a camp on Franklin Island in Georgian Bay, where he had a brief romance with a hazel-eyed girl named Dorothy. The pair would play tennis or go canoeing together, he recalls.
"I met so many friends there," he says. "We were sending postcards for quite a while."
Harold (Red) Fromstein, meanwhile, had never been to cottage country. Determined to get his feet wet, he's the first to touch the chilly water of the lake.
"Everything here is plus," the 89-year-old says later. "The meals are good, the people are good. They keep you busy all day."
The people included everyone from nurses to therapists, looking after campers and running activities. One of them is Ann Pigott, a Parkwood art instructor, who leads sessions on monoprinting and other crafts at a picnic table.
"It keeps their brains active, it keeps their hands limber. It's very good for stress relief, for relaxation," she says.
Another is Brian Knapman, a registered practical nurse from Parkwood. He works night duty, making the rounds and being on call for any medical problems.
Besides the personnel, he explains, the hospitals bring a host of equipment, from first-aid kits to blood-pressure cuffs and thermometers. Taking care of residents with cognitive impairments, such as Alzheimers, requires a few extra steps, like tying pop cans to either side of their doors to alert staff if they leave their rooms at night.
The months of planning and preparation are well worth it – as much for the staff as for the veterans themselves.
"Back in the hospital, it's task-oriented: what the medication is, what the residents' needs are. Up here, the pace slows down. You get to sit down with the guys and talk about things that aren't related to the hospital," Mr. Knapman says. "And they talk about the camp all year, afterward."
That easygoing attitude is on full display one night at a 1950s-themed dance party in the main hall. The men wear Buddy Holly glasses and painted-on sideburns; women don polka-dot dresses. Nurses, camp staffers and a few visitors from the Legion join the residents on the dance floor. Jukebox, a husband-and-wife duo from Oakville, Ont., covers standards from Wake Up Little Suzie to Blueberry Hill.
Don Warlow, 83, is on his feet much of the night. The music is all familiar – he used to waltz and two-step to it when it first came out.
"It's great; they won't let you sit down," he says afterward . "It's a good thing to have – to remind you where you were."