Even before COVID, a Statistics Canada survey reported that as many as 1.4 million elderly Canadians reported feeling lonely. COVID has only exacerbated this issue. But increased isolation is just one of the challenges older adults have been facing—both pre- and mid-pandemic.
What our seniors are up against
Elder abuse and neglect
Elder abuse and neglect—in forms including financial, chemical/pharmaceutical, sexual, and emotional/psychological—is experienced regularly by Canadian seniors and appears to have significantly increased during COVID-19.
Lack of social inclusion has also been exacerbated, as groups that older adults used to participate in or at-home care were suspended due to the pandemic. Many volunteering opportunities for seniors have also been stopped or postponed because of COVID.
“[A]ll of a sudden, their need and purpose for getting up in the morning is somewhat stalled,” says Heather Thompson, director of Age-Friendly Initiatives, Community Development Halton, Ontario, and a member of the Older Adult Isolation Action Table, which looks to increase connectedness for older adults in Halton who are at risk of social isolation.
She adds that, initially, many seniors she’s heard from felt confused—they questioned why they had to stay at home when they’re healthy and can help.
A type of discrimination, ageism is another issue seniors are encountering. Throughout the pandemic, older adults have likely come across the sentiment that older people are going to die anyway. Thompson says seniors might internalize the idea they’re not as valuable once they’re over 65 or 70. In fact, Thompson often hears sentiments such as “I feel invisible, like my opinion doesn’t count,” “I’m not valued,” or “I’m not worthy of being loved” from older adults.
Grieving has been another challenge for seniors. At their stage in life, they may be losing many of their friends. Funeral services now may be limited to a few participants or are held on Zoom, which may not allow for adequate processing or grieving, says Thompson.
And, according to Thompson, older adults may also struggle with technology or cell phones, or find them unaffordable. They may be afraid to attend health check-ups, be hesitant to take public forms of transportation, or suffer from lack of touch, she adds.
Small acts of kindness
Volunteer organizations across the country have been addressing these needs. They’re proving that small acts of kindness can make a big difference in our seniors’ lives.
One such organization is ElderDog, a nationwide organization operating in 26 communities across Canada. Elderdog’s 2,000 plus volunteers help seniors with dog care duties, including dog walking, caring for dogs while their owners undergo surgery, and delivering necessities such as dog food and medication.
The organization also arranges for dog adoptions when older adults can no longer care for them. In cases such as these, they rehome the dog, but keep their companion as connected as they would like to be with their dog.
“We very much operate out of respect and dignity and comfort in all that we do. All of our volunteers across the country live by that when they’re representing ElderDog; it’s really a beautiful thing,” says Ardra Cole, founder and executive director of ElderDog.
Kira Sufalko, leader of the ElderDog Pawd on the Sunshine Coast in BC, has been operating her Pawd for 14 months, which currently has 44 volunteers. She says volunteers find out about ElderDog mainly through word-of-mouth, and sometimes through marketing at local shops and seniors’ centres.
With the onset of COVID, Sufalko says, ElderDog has also functioned as a wellness check, because dogwalkers drop by a senior’s house on a regular basis to walk their dog. She says that volunteers are put in a place where people are trusting them with their most beloved pets, which can create a friendship between the client and senior. And sometimes, clients later become volunteers.
“When you volunteer with ElderDog, you almost become part of what we call the ElderDog family. It’s a family that’s kind, caring, supportive, and very compassionate and community based.”
Diana Lynn is a senior who uses ElderDog’s services. She owns two English springer spaniels, Jozee and Buca, who have been with her for 14 and 11 years, respectively. During her latest hip surgery, ElderDog provided a foster home for both of her dogs, so Lynn was able to focus on rest and recovery. And, while Lynn can now match pace with Jozee, she needs someone else to walk Buca, so a volunteer from ElderDog comes by every day for his walk.
Lynn finds it comforting to know that ElderDog will be there when she can’t be.
“I’m confident that Kira [leader of her ElderDog Pawd] would choose a home where they could go together, where they would be happy and their needs would be met,” says Lynn. “I’m alone here, as far as family goes. I feel like I have a new family, a new community to be involved with. [The volunteers are] wonderful people.”
Kindness in your community
Want to help a senior in your neighbourhood, but not sure how?
If a senior resists your help, Heather Thompson of Community Development Halton, Ontario, encourages you to let that senior know you’re available, and then wait for them to come to you if they need a hand.
If you haven’t seen a senior out and about for awhile, Thompson suggests you give them a quick ring to see how they’re doing and if there’s anything they need. “I’ve heard over and over again that making an old-fashioned phone call is one of the best things you can do,” says Thompson.
She also says it’s important to keep an eye out for those in your neighbourhood who are “champions in their community.” These point people will be aware of who needs help and how you can help them.
Canadian organizations currently accepting volunteers for seniors.
|Volunteer organization||Senior services||Contact|
|Outbound Volunteers||Volunteers call isolated seniors in the Greater Toronto Area.||dcogt.com/outbound|
|Meals on Wheels||Meals are delivered to homebound seniors and others by volunteer drivers.||Contact your local chapter.|
|ElderDog||Services include dog walking and dog care for seniors.||elderdog.ca|
|The Distress Line||Volunteers answer distress calls, including those from the Senior Abuse Helpline.||edmonton.cmha.ca/volunteering-with-the-distress-line/|
|Bridging the Generational Gap||Younger volunteers gather, by phone or virtually, with seniors in care homes for conversation, arts projects, and storytelling. The program, started at the beginning of the pandemic, also distributes handmade cards to seniors.||bridgingthegenerationalgap.com|
Still looking for the right opportunity for you?
“Many major cities in Canada have volunteer centres, for example Volunteer Ottawa and Volunteer Victoria,” says Lisa Hartford, director of communications and knowledge mobilization at CanAge. “You can search by area of interest, such as ‘seniors’ and by geographic location.”
If you’d like to get involved in volunteering at a seniors’ residence, this may not be happening much, if at all, says Hartford.
“My suggestion would be to call the facility where you want to help out and take their guidance; don’t be surprised, however, that it might take a long time to hear back from the residence, if they respond at all. These homes are understaffed and struggling,” explains Hartford.
Keeping yourself safe
Joanne McKiernan, executive director of Volunteer Toronto, reminds volunteers to ask some safety questions prior to getting involved. She recommends questions such as “What training will I receive?” and “What policies are in place to protect volunteers?”
Volunteers can help prevent abuse and neglect
According to an August 2020 report by CanAge, in several provinces, help from organizations for seniors facing elder abuse and neglect either do not exist or only survive based on fluctuating volunteer support.