How seniors are helping seniors during COVID-19

When services and amenities closed, older residents in Elliot Lake — where the median age is 59 — created and fostered networks to stay informed, healthy, and engaged
By Nick Dunne - Published on Feb 11, 2021
Val Spencer (second from right) is the president of Renaissance Active Living Centre in Elliot Lake, which held events pre-COVID-19. (Courtesy of Val Spencer)



Like many Ontarians, Arline Cardy, 75, didn’t realize how much the pandemic would affect her life — or for how long. When the seniors’ centre she belongs to shut down last March, the 75-year-old says, “We thought this was only going to be temporary.”

Almost a year later, the Renaissance Active Living Centre remains closed, meaning its 500 members still lack access to its gym, its dances and plays, and its organized activities, such as yoga, card games, and beanbag-baseball. “I was a little bit concerned,” Cardy says. “We've got a 96-year-old who's playing beanbag — and she is a firecracker — but all of a sudden, that little spark of energy, she's got nothing to stimulate it at all.”

While social distancing plays a key role in fighting COVID-19, research indicates that isolation can lead to serious health issues and that seniors are more likely to be isolated. For Elliot Lake — where the median age is 59, compared to the national median of 41 — pandemic restrictions created a major challenge. In response, local seniors have created and fostered networks that, residents and outreach workers say, have become essential for mental and physical well-being.

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“For many of them, coming to that building is a social outlet,” says Val Spencer, 69, the president of Renaissance Active Living Centre. “They miss everybody. They miss their friends. They miss the routine of getting up every day and getting ready and coming out to the centre.”

That’s why, although the building is closed, Spencer is making a point of checking in on members. Since the second lockdown began in December, she says, she’s been making about a dozen calls a day to ask how they’re doing and whether anyone needs anything: “When I call, I leave it up to the client. Sometimes they want to talk; they want to chat, and it's like a befriending call. You let them guide it, the pace of the call.”

Most calls are a straightforward check-in with some chatting, she says, although she’s also assisted people with things such as scheduling the city’s grocery-delivery services. “I want to make sure that they're taken care of, and when we're in lockdown like this, I don't want them to feel that they're being forgotten,” Spencer says. “I enjoy them. They’ve always made me feel good.”

The Renaissance Active Living Centre isn’t the only Elliot Lake institution checking in on older residents in the town of 11,000. The Elliot Lake Family Health Team began its check-in service last May after taking over from the city, which turned its focus to a grocery-shopping and delivery program. Elliot Lake’s chief administrative officer, Dan Gagnon, says that the municipality began the program days after the pandemic had been declared. “Half of our population is retired, so we have an older demographic. We worried our population was more at risk than other municipalities,” Gagnon says. “We recruited these people to retire here, so we didn’t want them going out and getting sick on our watch.”

Terry Handford, an assistant with the health team, spends roughly two hours on the phone each day with a group of around 30 seniors. The interactions, she says, range from quick check-ins to small talk, but she’s also helped refer people to ELFHT health services. “We have our little jokes and our little things that we talk about,” says Handford. “So it's a little bit personalized.” She’s received gifts and Christmas cards from the people she talks with and personal thank-you notes from their families, she says: “I'm paying it forward. It’s just kindness, and it’s a way of serving my community.”

Other seniors’ centres serving small northern communities have stepped up. Golden-age centres in Manitouwadge, White River, and other small communities far away from northern urban centres have maintained peer networks. Maggie Schut, director of communications at the Manitouwadge Golden Age Centre, says it’s set up “telephone trees” — one person calls several people, and each person who was called then calls several people, and so on — to keep everyone in touch. “Somebody falls and breaks the hip — the word gets out right away,” Schut says, adding that the “Savvy Seniors of Manitouwadge,” as they call themselves, also catch up virtually via Zoom.

For Cardy, maintaining a peer network, whether in person or over the phone, isn’t just a way to stay independent and sociable — it also fosters a special kinship within the seniors’ community. “There is an element to when a young person looks at an old person, and they don't see that person used to be young,” she says. “Young people don't see that, whereas a fellow senior looks and says, ‘Remember when we did this or that?’”

Brian Greenway, 83, another Renaissance Active Living Centre member, says it’s vital that senior looks out for one another in smaller communities. After Service Ontario locations closed, he notes, he called his friends to share information about how to renew their driver’s licences. “That's what dialogue between seniors consists of many times over here,” he says. “We help each other in a hundred ways.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

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