Unused mascot illustrates the plight of isolated B.C. seniors

Elderbeary, a mascot meant to promote the idea that a senior's life can be active and fun, has become an unintentional symbol for a growing problem: a shortage of volunteers willing to spend time with Canada's aging population.

Lack of volunteers, loneliness a growing concern as population ages

Elderbeary spends most of his time in a basement closet known as 'the dungeon' of the Prince George Seniors Resource Centre. (Audrey McKinnon/CBC)

In the basement closet of the Prince George, B.C. Seniors Resource Centre sits Elderbeary, a mascot meant to promote the idea that a senior's life can be active and fun.

Instead the bear costume has spent most of the past two years unused, an unintentional symbol for a growing problem: a shortage of volunteers willing to spend time with Canada's aging population.

Prince George Council of Seniors Executive Director Lola-Dawn Fennell said getting someone to play the role of Elderbeary is just one of many volunteer positions she's struggling to fill.

"Meals on Wheels drivers, volunteer visitors, friendly phone-callers, there's a variety of things we could use," she said.

Elderbeary in a rare public appearance to promote the construction of the Riverbend Seniors Community in 2016. The housing unit was created to address the gap in suitable homes for Prince George's growing senior population. (Prince George Council of Seniors)

Like much of the rest of the country, the senior population in Prince George is growing. According to Statistics Canada, 2015 marked the first year there were more people in the country over 65 than under 15, with projections showing the imbalance will likely continue growing.

Health concerns connected to loneliness

As that happens, advocates are increasingly concerned about people becoming isolated as they age, with as many as 1.4 million elderly Canadians reporting feelings of loneliness, which can be linked to physical and mental side effects, including high blood pressure, dementia and premature death.

The United Kingdom attracted worldwide attention when Prime Minister Theresa May established a Ministry of Loneliness to address the issue, which extends to all age groups but is exacerbated by age.

In British Columbia, the Office of the Seniors Advocate found 48 per cent of seniors in care homes feel a low sense of social engagement.

With that in mind, getting someone to play a mascot may not be Fennell's top priority, but she does hope to attract enough new volunteers so that Elderbeary can see the light of day of again.

"I could think of lots of places to take him if I had the volunteer in there."


With files from Audrey McKinnon and CBC Daybreak North

About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

@akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is a radio producer and digital journalist in northern British Columbia, situated in the traditional territory of the Lheidli T'enneh in Prince George.