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Mental Health

Now There Is Someone to Call On

Organizations use a collective approach to connect with isolated seniors

Mariam Larson

From "Loneliness and Social Connection" issue of Visions Journal, 2019, 14 (3), pp. 35-36

Imagine the end of a really good—or really bad—day. How many people do you have in your life to share your joy—or sorrow? How many people can you call on for ordinary support or advice at a moment’s notice?

Roughly 30% of seniors don't have anyone to call on for support, advice or even a simple conversation. For many, important social connections are broken when partners, friends and family die, when people move or live far away or can't be available for other reasons.1,2

Losing a partner or lifelong friend is heartbreaking. If the partner was the person who made the meals and kept the social calendar full, the daily emptiness resulting from the partner's absence can be profound. If the friend was the one person who shared stories or adventures, the sense of disconnection the senior feels when the friend is no longer available can be crippling. If the absent family member was the one who drove to appointments or picked up groceries, a senior's essential needs can go unmet when that family member is gone.

Seniors without social connections often experience poorer emotional, mental and physical health than seniors who do have strong social connections.1,2 Isolated seniors who might benefit greatly from community programs may not know what programs are available or how to access resources and services. If a senior has a low income or lives with a disability, a language barrier or cultural differences, it can be impossible to bridge connection gaps without skilled support.

Partners in reducing isolation

Allies in Aging is a group of more than 30 partner agencies working to reach and connect with seniors who are at risk of isolation. The group is funded in part by the Government of Canada's New Horizons for Seniors Program (NHSP) and is one of NHSP's nine three-year initiatives aimed at reducing seniors' social isolation across Canada.

Under the leadership of four agencies, Allies in Aging provides a variety of outreach services, training for volunteers and service providers, and transportation initiatives for seniors in Vancouver, Burnaby, the North Shore and the Tri-Cities. Since its launch in 2016, Allies in Aging has connected with more than 14,000 seniors and has trained more than 2000 volunteers and service providers. It has also advocated successfully for change in regional seniors’ transportation programs and provincial policies.

Allies in Aging uses a collective-impact approach to making positive social change. This means that partners commit to a shared agenda, collaborate on activities that reinforce mutual goals and engage in shared evaluation of our methods and results. A dedicated individual acts as "backbone lead," supporting the coordination, communication and connections across programs and among partners. As a group, we have found that we can have greater impact when we work together than if we try to make changes on our own.

Programs that build community

Allies in Aging runs several different initiatives, each headed by a different lead agency. Burnaby Neighbourhood House leads the Welcoming Seniors' Spaces program, which uses intentional outreach to connect seniors with people and places where they can experience a sense of belonging and value. Volunteers and staff reach seniors at food banks and subsidized housing units, and also connect with those sleeping rough in the community. Volunteers and staff conduct simple walking trips to distribute resources and extend invitations to other seniors to come and join community meals or outings where they can build relationships through shared experience. One senior who was drawn to one of our training programs ended up organizing a community barbeque with support from the project team.

South Vancouver Neighbourhood House leads the Seniors Hub and Neighbourly Together Program, which uses door-to-door outreach to promote local opportunities and offer individual support for seniors who may rarely leave home. Project teams and senior leaders have developed creative ways to find seniors where they live. Many of the seniors targeted by this program speak little English and have limited familiarity with their community, even if they have lived there for a long time. Volunteers and staff trained through Neighbourly Together work to find common interests among seniors and to identify seniors' hidden strengths so that those who are isolated can expand their boundaries with dignity and confidence.

Volunteer Impact is a regional training program for volunteers and service providers to help them to identify, understand and connect with isolated seniors. The lead agency for this program is Family Services of the North Shore. Participants in the training sessions often attend multiple workshops designed to deepen their ability to recognize and reduce the isolating impacts of cultural or communication barriers, anxiety and stress, dementia, depression and delirium, and grief and loss. Sessions have become so popular that most of them have waitlists. Several session resources are now available online at www.alliesinaging.ca, in various languages, making them a valuable resource for community and cultural organizations in their efforts to help reduce seniors' isolation.

Seniors on the Move, led by Burnaby Community Services, is also a regional initiative. It aims to design new transportation services, or enhance existing transportation services, to meet seniors' needs. Multi-sector collaboration through this program has resulted in significant changes to transportation services, as well as the development of resources and training to support seniors in making plans and timely changes when they are no longer able or no longer wish to drive. A partnership with Modo the Car Co-op provides access to cars for volunteer drivers to use when taking seniors out in the community. A partnership with bc211 resulted in the creation of a seniors' transportation hotline for the Metro Vancouver area: people can dial 211 to get up-to-date information about everything from bus routes to HandyDart registration to local volunteer ride programs.

For more information about Allies in Aging, check out our website: www.alliesinaging.ca. You'll find project contacts and a variety of outreach and training resources. You can also sign up to receive our regular newsletter to read about some of our success stories and keep up with our work.

 
About the author

As a consulting gerontologist, Mariam provides project management services for cities and community agencies, including Allies in Aging. She is married, the mother of two adult children, an active grandmother to toddler twins and the go-to support for her 87-year-old mother. She considers "life balance" a fallacy and instead aims for role integration

Footnotes:
  1. Keefe, J., Andrew, M., Fancey, P. & Hall, M. (2006). Final report: A profile of social isolation in Canada. Halifax, NS: Province of British Columbia and Mount St. Vincent University. www.health.gov.bc.ca/library/ publications/year/2006/keefe_social_isolation_final_ report_may_2006.pdf.

  2. Weldrick, R. & Grenier, A. (2018). Research note: Social isolation in later life: Extending the conversation. Canadian Journal on Aging / La revue canadienne du viellissement 37(1), 76-83.

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