How seniors’ centres are helping older Ontarians stuck at home  

Daily phone calls. Language classes on Zoom. With much of the province shut down, organizations are working to find new ways to keep seniors engaged
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on May 07, 2020
The Seniors Association in Kingston serves about 5,500 members. (David Rockne Corrigan)



Twenty or so Ottawa-area seniors meet via telephone on a Friday morning in May. “Thank you for joining us a bit earlier today,” says Darlene Powers, the master of tele-ceremonies. “Before we get started, I want to let you know we have a large group this morning.” 

“I miss you, Darlene,” someone says.

“I miss you, too,” Powers says. “I’ve got some good news. Want to hear it?” 

Powers, the day director of the Good Companions seniors’ centre, is running its free interactive telephone program, Seniors’ Centre Without Walls. The longstanding program has ramped up during the pandemic — it now runs at least three times each weekday, for between 30 and 60 minutes. Recent topics include taxes, bone health, dating as an older adult, and the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. 

As Powers promised, this morning’s presentation is all about good news — more callers join as she reads uplifting news items from around the world. There’s a centenarian war veteran raising money in the United Kingdom, anonymous giving in the United States, and a FedEx driver who saved a wedding by delivering a ring to the beach ceremony.

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The centre, like others across the province, has been closed for eight weeks. While the closures are designed to protect seniors from COVID-19, they have also upended routines and disrupted critical social interaction for thousands of older adults.

“They describe us as their family,” Monique Doolittle-Romas, executive director of the Good Companions, says of its approximately 1,000 members. “I miss that laughter. I used to sometimes call it noise. But I can’t wait to hear that noise again.”

“Our members are anxious,” she says. “They say, ‘You bear witness to our lives. We want to come back and share our lives with you.’ It means the world to them. It means the world to us.”

Doolittle-Romas doesn’t expect the centre to reopen until July at the earliest, though she plans to “open the doors as soon as we are physically able.” Several summer events have been cancelled, including a popular strawberry social and the LGBTQ pride barbecue. 

Instead, the centre is pouring resources into its remote offerings, partnering with the provincial Ministry of Seniors and Accessibility, the United Way, and the Older Adults Centres’ Association of Ontario — an organization that supports seniors’ centres serving more than 200,000 older adults across the province — to bring the Without Walls program to a larger audience. 

Sue Hesjedahl, the OACAO’s executive director, says that 75 centres have been trained on the program and that there are now 35 Seniors Centre Without Walls programs operating in Ontario. “I think, before COVID-19, that program was so vital to really homebound, socially isolated seniors. But now, socially active and physically active seniors are homebound,” she says. “They're missing social interactions.” 

The Seniors Association in Kingston, which serves about 5,500 members, has moved programming online whenever possible. An Arabic-language course, for example, will be delivered via Zoom, according to executive director Don Amos. The woodworking course, which relies on specific equipment, has been cancelled altogether.

woodworking shop
The Seniors Association in Kingston has had to cancel some programming, such as the woodworking course, which relies on specific equipment. (David Rockne Corrigan)

Studies show that socialization is a key health component for older adults,” says Amos. “What we are preaching to all of our population, not just seniors, is to self-isolate and stay home to stay safe — and that defeats the purpose of what seniors’ centres are about. We’re there to promote socialization.”

Ottawa Public Health nurse Kerry Chouinard told via email that socializing is “very important” for the health of older adults, adding that, as seniors' activity centres have shut down, “it is important for older adults to stay active and connected to others in order to protect and maintain their physical and mental health.”

The Seniors Association is working to stay connected with its members, especially those who may not have access to online programming. Amos says they’ve placed almost 400 calls to members who don’t have email addresses. “They’re scared,” he says. “They’re at home — not really able to do anything.”

Amos says that demand for seniors’ centres in Kingston has spiked in recent years, prompting his non-profit to expand to include three satellite facilities (construction on a fourth, part of a city-run community centre in Kingston’s east end, has been given the go-ahead to resume). Now he’s worried about the future of his programming. “Our income came to a screeching halt on March 17. It’s hard right now being a charity. A lot of our fundraising events had to be cancelled. Budgets are being thrown out the window.”

Barry and Val Malmsten, a retired couple in their late sixties, are members and volunteers at the Seniors’ Association — Barry leads a motorcycle group.

“We play pickleball several times a week and take exercise classes,” says Barry. “But it’s the pickleball we really miss.”

“One of the classes we take uses a foam roller on the muscles,” says Val. “Sometimes we get out our rollers and mats and try our best to reconstruct the class, try to do as many of the exercises as we can remember.”

The couple tries to keep busy. Barry recently challenged his grandson to a reading challenge. He lost but is quick to point out that his seven-year-old grandson reads thinner books. They’ve also been taking care of Val’s mother, 92-year-old Marjorie Salmon, who lives alone in a house nearby. 

Salmon has been a member of the Seniors Association for nearly 30 years and says she would normally be there four days a week. “It’s a big part of my life,” she says. “I think, when you live alone, it’s essential to have somewhere you can go to meet people. I really miss it.”

She says that, in the early weeks of pandemic restrictions, she wasn’t getting enough exercise, and her arthritis flared up. Now, she tunes into a local television station three times a week to watch one of her instructors lead a workout. She’s looking forward to warmer weather so that she can spend more time in the garden. She keeps her mind busy by reading and, when she has a moment, she works on her memoirs. 

“I try to do something different every day,” she says. “So it doesn’t get monotonous.”

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

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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