British Columbia

Coquitlam extends meal program to support seniors experiencing isolation, reach more people

The city's meal program began in March 2020 to support seniors experiencing loneliness during the pandemic. Volunteers pick up the meals and deliver them to seniors on Tuesdays and Fridays every week.

'You kind of look forward to the meals coming because you knew you'd have someone to talk to'

Liz Thunstrom, 83, lives alone in her Coquitlam home. She says the pandemic has been isolating — but that she looks forward to the meal deliveries. (Janella Hamilton/CBC News)

As someone who lives alone, 83-year-old Liz Thunstrom says the last couple of years have been extremely difficult. 

"The isolation is the hardest part. Not being able to see family or friends, not being able to hug or laugh with somebody," said Thunstrom at her home in Coquitlam, under an hour's drive from Vancouver. 

But one of the things that have made a big difference, she says, is the City of Coquitlam's meal program for seniors, where volunteers drop by twice a week to check in and chat while delivering a meal.

"It isn't just the food. It's about the volunteers," said Thunstrom. "You kind of look forward to the meals coming because you knew you'd have someone to talk to, as well as a nice meal."

The meal program began in March 2020 to support seniors experiencing loneliness during the pandemic. This year, the city says it plans to continue running the program — and expand it by partnering with community organizations and support providers to reach more people, including people with disabilities. 

"It just took off on its own. We had no idea that it would turn into what it did," said Debbie Clavelle, community recreation manager at the City of Coquitlam.

"Volunteers are coming to us, saying, 'You have to keep this program running.' Some volunteers we spoke to said the program means more to them ... being able to brighten the day of a senior or put a smile on their face, or have a conversation with them at their door."

Volunteers with the City of Coquitlam's meals for seniors program have delivered more than 30,000 meals since it began in 2020. (Steve Kim/Facebook)

The meals are prepared by staff at Glen Pine Pavilion and Dogwood Pavilion community centres in Coquitlam. Volunteers pick up the meals and deliver them to seniors on Tuesdays and Fridays every week. More than 30,000 meals have been delivered to seniors to date.

Bill Wray and his wife Lynda have been delivering meals as volunteers since the program began.

"We got a lot of the seniors that we delivered the meals to, who wanted to talk on their door step," said Bill Wray. "Some of them were quite long chats, some of them were quite short. It really depends on the individual."

"I really enjoy it. Just checking on them, making sure they're feeling okay. It is very lonely for them, especially when they don't have family close by," said Lynda Wray. 

Addressing loneliness

Staff at South Vancouver Neighbourhood House are hoping to address a similar need. 

"We have about 500 seniors in our membership. They are feeling lonely, and that isolation has gone on for a very long time. We're seeing it more pronounced in their mental health," said Shelley Jorde, director of seniors programs at South Vancouver Neighbourhood House.

Although they have suspended in-person programs, one of the ways they hope to help is through the phone. 

South Vancouver Neighbourhood House serves more than 500 seniors. One of the ways they try to support seniors through the loneliness of isolation is through telephone conversations. (South Vancouver Neighbourhood House)

"We have volunteers who make friendly phone calls to see if they need anything," said Jorde. 

"We knew that it was going to become more challenging as the pandemic went on, as people became less hopeful for the future."

'Somebody cares about me'

Thunstrom says being alone at home has had a significant impact on her mental health, but friendly conversations with volunteers has helped. 

"I think the sense of ... somebody cares about me. They may not know me personally but somebody cares about the seniors or the people who can't get out ... that has made a huge difference." 

Thunstrom, who has a lung condition, says despite public health restrictions easing, she is still not comfortable attending in-person activities at Dogwood Pavilion.

"It's a tough one because there are even within the senior community, varying opinions and varying levels of comfort," said Clavelle, with the City of Coquitlam.

Clavelle adds the city is continually adapting its programs to meet the needs of seniors, including outdoor fitness classes and online activities.

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