Army of storytellers connect with lonely seniors during pandemic in languages from Dutch to Urdu

A program connecting people with a passion for telling stories with seniors who are feeling isolated during the pandemic has already been a big success before it’s even been launched.

Retirees book slot with a volunteer who tells them a tale or two to ease isolation

Madiha Madda speaks Urdu and grew up with Pakistani parents who shared all kinds of stories that she can pass on to Urdu-speaking seniors in Calgary. (Submitted by Madiha Madda)

A program connecting people with a passion for telling stories with seniors who are feeling isolated during the pandemic is proving to be a big success, before it's even been officially launched.

StoryShare is a program run by Storytelling Alberta, a non-profit promoting the tradition of oral storytelling. The program is a partnership with the Calgary Seniors Resource Society. 

Since May, a team of volunteers has been busy connecting with seniors via phone calls and video conference calls, telling them stories and giving them an opportunity to tell one in return, to just chat or ask questions about how to access different resources.

Volunteers speak English, Spanish, Dutch and Urdu, helping seniors from different background and cultures connect.

"We have storytellers standing by, ready to share a story with a senior. The storyteller tells a story, then the senior is invited to share an anecdote from their lived history," said Storytelling Alberta president Doreen Vanderstoop.

Doreen Vanderstoop, president of Storytelling Alberta, says the StoryShare program has been a big help for seniors struggling to find and make connections during the pandemic. (Submitted by Doreen Vanderstoop )

Volunteers, who are vetted, can also help seniors access resources and assist with things like getting prescriptions filled and organizing grocery deliveries.

"These are oral stories, so when our storytellers call, they are not just reading, these are oral stories. People really connect with personal stories and it sparks their own memories. They can also be folk tales, literary adaptations or historical stories," said Vanderstoop. 

Many seniors have been lonelier than usual since COVID-19 arrived in Alberta, with some craving company, even if it's just a chat on the phone.

"This was a pandemic response and we've done upwards of 120 sessions now since the beginning of May," said Vanderstoop.

She says the need will likely intensify again in the fall and winter months as people head back indoors and deeper into isolation.

Some seniors can be more isolated than others, especially those who speak languages other then English.

One group the program is helping is South Asian seniors who speak Urdu. Volunteers are now seeking requests from that community to expand the program's reach.

Volunteer Madiha Madda grew up with Pakistani parents and was exposed to storytelling through her family. She hopes to share some of those stories with Pakistani seniors in Calgary and hear some of their stories.

StoryShare gives seniors who are feeling isolated the chance to chat and listen to a story from a volunteer with a passion for oral storytelling. Volunteers say they can hear the difference in seniors after just a few minutes on the phone. (Submitted by Storytelling Alberta)

"I live in the northeast and would often see seniors at places like the Genesis Centre during the day finding ways to connect with others from their communities. But since COVID, there's been a drop in that, so I figured this might be a good way to connect," said Madda.

"Also, I think they have so much to share and I think language can be a barrier to access," she said. "So I asked about the possibility of doing something in Urdu, and Storytelling Alberta was very supportive," she said.

Madda says she likes to tell traditional folk tales and family stories as well as personal stories, and speaking in Urdu allows her to practise speaking the language herself. Calls generally last for 20 or 30 minutes, and seniors can get three calls with the same volunteer.

"I love that idea of sharing knowledge and information and connecting and just hearing the difference in the senior's mood. You can hear it by the end of the phone call," Madda said.

"You hear this warmth and uplift in their voice and it's wonderful to be a part of that," she added.

Although the outreach program has been running throughout the summer, its official launch happens next month.

An online launch event is planned for Oct. 5.


Dan McGarvey


Dan McGarvey is a mobile journalist focused on filing stories remotely for CBC Calgary’s web, radio, TV and social media platforms, using only an iPhone and mobile tech. His work is used by mobile journalism (mojo) trainers and educators around the world. Dan is focused on sharing stories from under-reported communities and groups in Calgary and southern Alberta. You can email story ideas and tips to Dan at