From families to community groups, seniors are sorely missed during COVID-19 pandemic

Non-profit groups and extended families say life is harder during the pandemic, without the support of seniors

Older Manitobans are often the driving force behind volunteer organizations

John and Marlene Oldham volunteer four days a week at a local soup kitchen, helping behind the scenes with cooking and cleaning. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

It's been weeks or months since many Manitoba seniors have gone into self-isolation, and their absence is being felt in the community.

John Oldham volunteers regularly at Oak Table, a soup kitchen and resource centre in Winnipeg's Osborne Village. The 75-year-old former minister usually greets people at the door, and makes the rounds to chat with people during lunch.

Lately, he's been helping out behind the scenes, with tasks like wiping down chairs and tables.

"Right now I'm very hands-on," he said, "because some of the regular volunteers aren't here to do it."

Oak Table has lost 106 volunteers during the COVID-19 crisis. Most are seniors who are staying home for now, over health concerns.

75-year-old John Oldham is volunteering at Oak Table more than ever during the pandemic. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

That's prompting some, like Oldham and his wife, to take on more shifts. They've gone from volunteering only on Tuesdays, to working four days a week.

Marlene Oldham works in the kitchen, chopping fruit and veggies, and preparing bagged lunches. She said she wants to make sure their regulars keep getting help during the pandemic.

Marlene Oldham prepares bagged lunches to share with low-income and marginalized people in Winnipeg's Osborne Village. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

"You just have to walk outside and see the people who are camping outside here," she said, as tears welled up in her eyes.

"Who cares for them if we don't?" 

Oak Table executive director Glynis Quinn says the centre "wouldn't exist" without the help of retirees like the Oldhams.

"Without our seniors, we wouldn't be able to operate," said Quinn. "We operate on a very lean staff and our seniors virtually carry the place."

Oak Table's director Glynis Quinn says the centre 'wouldn't exist' without the help of seniors. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Researchers at the University of Manitoba say the province's seniors spend millions of hours volunteering every year. Their research suggests Canadians over 65 are also more likely to be "super volunteers" — those who spend 200 hours a year or more, doing unpaid work.

"It's kind of invisible to society, that older people are contributing," said  Michelle Porter, director of U of M's Centre on Aging.

"That isn't the message, even outside of a pandemic. We see older people as needing the rest of us. And we don't see perhaps how they're contributing in so many different ways."

Oak Table says a range of younger seniors all the way up to volunteers in their '90s keep the soup kitchen and outreach centre going. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Porter says those contributions go beyond volunteering. Many seniors also spend a lot of time helping younger relatives with things like babysitting.

"The number of hours spent [doing unpaid work] might be underestimated, because older people don't see some things as volunteering. They just see it as something they should be doing to help the family."

Winnipegger Jennifer Chen says working from home has been tough without her parents' help.

"In Chinese culture, grandparents are [prepared] for taking care of grandchildren," said the West End mom of two. "Teach them traditional language, cultural traditions. But they're not able to do that now. So it's hard."

Jennifer Chen and her partner David Jacks say their kids are quite a handful without the help of her parents, who are seniors. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Chen says her kids have already lost some of the Chinese words they learned in their grandparents' care. They stay in touch over video chat, but Chen says that's not the same.

"They want to see their grandchildren, they miss them so much."

That eagerness to share knowledge with the next generation is a driving force for older volunteers, according to Rick Baker of the Canadian Association of Retired People. He points to a retired statistician now helping the organization with a survey on how the pandemic has affected seniors.

"Most of us have had a pretty good career," said Baker. "And if we can share that with both our elders and the people coming behind us, all the more important."

Linda Small spends several days a week volunteering at Good Neighbours Active Living Centre in Winnipeg's Bronx Park. She's been using computer skills developed during her decades-long career to help create a user-friendly, online system to help seniors access services.

Good Neighbours Active Living Centre volunteer Linda Small says retirees have valuable knowledge and skills to help the community. (Submitted by Linda Small)

"Just because you're retired doesn't mean you stop doing things," said Small, adding she sometimes feels younger generations don't respect seniors' experience.

"It can be frustrating," said the 67-year-old. "You've got a lot of knowledge to share, but they don't want to take advantage of it. In my mind, it's their loss."

The Centre on Aging says, contrary to what many think, the vast majority of Canadian seniors live independently and stay active.

"Unfortunately, this pandemic has really fed into society's existing ageist stereotypes," said Porter, saying she's noticed a perception that most seniors live in long-term-care homes, when it's actually more like 20-30 per cent. 

Porter said she's worried portraying older adults as vulnerable victims of the pandemic could have lasting effects on their mental health, especially if they internalize those negative impressions.

"Even older people can have ageist views that can hold them back from things they're capable of doing, or from seeing their true value," she said. 

She said that could influence older adults to stay away from volunteering and other meaningful activities after the crisis is over.

The Centre on Aging is holding its annual spring symposium on Monday, May 4. The conference will be held online, and will include dialogue between university researchers and the community.

WATCH | Seniors the driving force behind volunteer organizations:

Seniors sorely missed during COVID-19 pandemic

4 years ago
Duration 2:31
Oak Table says a range of younger seniors all the way up to volunteers in their '90s keep the soup kitchen and outreach centre going.