British Columbia

Letters, phone calls and meals: How people in Metro Vancouver have pivoted to help isolated seniors

Organizations and volunteers are writing letters, making cards, talking on the phone and dropping off meals in an effort to help isolated seniors through the pandemic.

Organizations say they have been inundated with offers to help

Vernoica Grossi and her daughter Talia hold Christmas cards they have collected for seniors in Burnaby, B.C. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

At the start of the pandemic, Dale Drewery was sitting in her apartment in Vancouver's West End, feeling down.

She was in between jobs as a television producer and was feeling cut off from her social life, with restrictions changing the way she could connect with friends and live life as she knew it.

"I was moping around. I was feeling kind of sorry for myself," she said.

But now, as Christmas approaches, she has a new sense of purpose in life — "kind of the best Christmas present that I could ever ask for," she said about being uplifted by the multiple connections she has made with seniors in her neighbourhood.

Dale Drewery says volunteering to check in on isolated seniors in Vancouver has given her a sense of purpose during the pandemic. (Dale Drewery)

Drewery volunteers with the West End Senior Network (WESN) to phone them, shop for groceries and make food bank deliveries.

"They are all really grateful to hear from someone and that's something that I learned," said Drewery, who worked for CBC News until 2001 before becoming a freelance producer.

"They feel oftentimes forgotten and these are people who built our communities and, because they are behind a closed door, we forget about them."

Since March, when a state of emergency was declared in B.C. due to rising COVID-19 cases, older adults have been the most affected by the pandemic. They are most at risk for developing serious and deadly complications from the coronavirus. Many have also been forced to isolate at home as a measure to try to stay safe.

Anthony Kupferschmidt knew that would have unintended consequences for the 1,300 people connected to the services provided by the WESN, which he runs.

He said more than 60 per cent of seniors living in the West End live alone.

'Isolation and loneliness'

"So we've seen a lot of issues come forward around isolation and loneliness," he said.

With limits on in-person services, the WESN focused on getting its 250 volunteers to start calling seniors on the phone regularly.

It's what, in part, Drewery has been doing to volunteer. She thinks she gets more out of it than the seniors, she says with a laugh.

"They're a whole bunch wiser than I am and we had a lot to talk about, so we'd talk and then we'd laugh and it just became a pleasure to talk to these people once a week or more often," she said.

Meals and more

To have a meaningful check-in with isolated seniors on the North Shore, the Silver Harbour Seniors Activity Centre has put its extensive in-house meal program on wheels.

It delivers around 600 meal bags a week to seniors in the neighbourhood — and it's not just food that's included.

Letters created by volunteers for a program in Burnaby that helps seniors facing isolation due to the pandemic. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Annwenn Loverin, who runs the centre, has connected with volunteers in the community to produce cards and messages of hope that go in the food bags, along with information seniors might need to stay safe.

It's "a reminder that seniors are valued and loved in our community," she said.

"Seniors are reading them and re-reading them, putting them on their bathroom mirror, on their fridge, as a reminder to stay positive, stay connected, during these really hard times for seniors."

There are several programs around B.C. that have volunteers creating cards and letters for older adults, which are then delivered to care homes or to seniors living alone.

Letter created by volunteers as part of a program in Burnaby to help isolated seniors. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Veronica Grossi developed one through Burnaby's Volunteer Grandparents program and has so far collected and delivered close to 1,000 of the messages.

Part of her job is to vet the letters or cards, which she says is the best part of the job.

"I find it so heartwarming, just reading them," she said.

People helping isolated seniors say if others want to help, they can reach out to community organizations or just simply try to connect with seniors who are neighbours or in your community.

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