Manitoba program fights loneliness by connecting seniors through conference calls

Jean Feliksiak looks forward to picking up her phone and catching up with her friends — playing games or even singing an off-key tune together over the line.

Jean Feliksiak, 85, says Senior Centre Without Walls is like having your friends over

Jean Feliksiak, 85, says she loves dialling in to the Senior Centre Without Walls conference calls to catch up with her friends across the province. (Kelly Malone/CBC)

Jean Feliksiak looks forward to picking up her phone and catching up with her friends — playing games or even singing an off-key tune together over the line.

The 85-year-old Winnipeg woman is part of the Senior Centre Without Walls, a teleconference get-together for Manitobans over the age of 55.

"We have never met each other but we all say, 'Oh, hello so-and-so. How are you today, and what have you been doing and so on.' It's just like having company right here," Feliksiak said.   

Senior Centre Without Walls, sponsored by the Manitoba support agency Age and Opportunity, provides educational and recreational programs for seniors from their own homes using teleconference calls. 

Loneliness is something people of all ages, backgrounds and cultures have to deal with, but for seniors it can affect physical and emotional health. As spouses and close friends die, and children have their own lives to manage, many seniors start to experience depression.

As many as 1.4 million elderly Canadians report feeling lonely, according to Statistics Canada.

'You aren't inclined to get up in the morning'

When Feliksiak's husband started experiencing stronger symptoms of dementia he was moved into a personal care home about a decade ago. For the first time in about 50 years, she was living in a one-bedroom apartment by herself.

"I was very lonely because it wasn't among my peers. It was students at the University of Winnipeg, which is quite close. There were other people who were going out to work," she said.

"So I was really isolated and they didn't have programs for seniors there because the building wasn't geared for seniors."

While Feliksiak eventually moved into seniors' apartments, the loneliness followed. One of her daughters had moved far away. Her other daughter was busy with work and life, but they made sure to go visit Feliksiak's husband every single Sunday for supper.

It was the time in between that was the most difficult, Feliksiak said.

"You sit and look out the window a lot and you aren't inclined to get up in the morning because you think, 'What is the point? There's nothing to do anyway,'" she said.

"Then, of course, you are sitting there in the evening too all by yourself, looking at the idiot box, the television."

'Like a jolly good family'

But Feliksiak, who fled from England to Alberta as a child during the Second World War, wasn't going to let the creeping loneliness take over her life. So she looked into ways to connect with her peers, and came across the Senior Centre Without Walls a few years ago.

"We all get to know each other by our voices and it's like a jolly good family," she said with a beaming smile.

The program started in Winnipeg in 2009 and was the first of its kind in Canada. It expanded to the rest of the province the next year, in particular to connect people in isolated or remote areas.

Now, about 175 people dial in to the service.

Some of the calls are educational: they bring a pharmacist on the line and the seniors can ask questions, or a doctor joins a call to give advice about managing diabetes.

But a lot of the calls are just about having fun.

"Brainteasers, those are very good to keep your mind working. They ask questions and we try to answer them," Feliksiak said.

There's also a talent competition which usually ends up with everyone singing together — a bit off-key, she added.

When Feliksiak's husband passed away, she was grateful to have her phone friends to talk to. 

"He was 93, going on 94. We would have had our 60th wedding anniversary in May and he passed away in February. So it was very, very difficult," she said.

Other participants also encouraged her as she wrote and recently published her first book, I Remember: An English WWII Child Evacuee to Canada.

Feliksiak said the outreach opportunity has also made her more friendly and outgoing in the community — something she thinks is important for other seniors.

"I think that that they should go out among people and say, 'Hello. I'm so-and-so. Who are you?'" she said.

"Introduce yourself. Don't just sit at home and be lonely. Be outgoing. Go places. Do the best you can."