How a program from Kingston can alleviate isolation among Toronto's seniors

Christine McMillan, 88, created Oasis Kingston almost a decade ago to address the issues of isolation, nutrition and exercise among seniors. Now that she's moving back to Toronto, she's bringing the program to a building at Bathurst Street and St. Clair Avenue West.

The program's founder, Christine McMillan, will host information sessions in Toronto on March 6 and 8

Christine McMillan is bringing her Oasis program to 400 Walmer Road, at Bathurst Street and St. Clair Avenue West. (OpenLab)

Katherine Kroff always wished her building, located at 237 Bath Road in Kingston, Ont.,  had somewhere downstairs where she could enjoy a cup of coffee.

A constant thought, the 93-year-old said, was, "if there was only a place where we could just get out of our apartment."

Katherine Kroff says rather than sit in her apartment alone, she and her neighbour would often walk to their nearest Loblaws in the 'bitter cold' or rain, just to get out of their homes. (OpenLab)

Many seniors in the building felt the same way; they were isolated.

It's something Christine McMillan, 88, noticed while doing citywide research with the city's Council on Aging.

"What we uncovered was just a loneliness that you could cut with a knife," she said. "They dreaded when home care was not going to be enough and they didn't have enough money to move into long-term care, or if they did have sufficient money, they were worried ... they'd run out of money before they died."

So, McMillan created Oasis, a new model of care that would ease loneliness, bring services directly to seniors in their homes and give them more autonomy over their own lives.

Almost a decade after launching the program in Kingston, McMillan has set her sights on Toronto, with a building already selected for the city's first Oasis.

Program beginnings

The idea behind the program is to bring services directly to buildings with a large percentage of seniors living in them. The residents themselves choose, develop and manage programs they'd like to use.

Kroff's Bath Road apartment, McMillan's own building, became the program's first location after the landlord agreed to allow programs to run in the common areas.

The program services about 60 seniors. They chose to implement catered and communal meals three times a week, exercise programs, onsite support workers, movies and art classes.

"Eating alone all the time was an issue for them ... Most of these people had severe mobility problems, so they weren't getting out much," according to McMillan.

Oasis Kingston residents enjoy some cards. (Sue Lantz)

Kroff, who often enjoys the communal meals, said the program, as a whole, has made her life richer.

"You don't have to worry about isolation because, you know, you can go downstairs. Every day I don't have to worry that I'm going to be in my apartment all day long," she said. "You belong to a group. You have a family."

Better model of care

Sue Lantz, a policy expert and consultant who specializes in aging, caregiving, and collaborative models of health and community care, believes the Oasis model gives seniors a more powerful voice and allows more customized solutions to their needs.

"I just loved the project and loved the people and thought it was a brilliant blueprint for the way we can move forward as boomers age."

In other living situations, such as a long-term care home or a retirement home, services are delivered on a one-on-one basis and on a schedule seniors can't usually control, Lantz said.

"The innovative part of Oasis is that some of the services are situated in the building for more hours of a day, and the individuals can tap into that resource as they need it, and it's more flexible, and it's also more reliable," she said. 

Sue Lantz, far left, visited the Kingston Oasis as part of her research, joining one of the building's catered meals. (Sue Lantz)

Lantz said bringing the services close to home is a common sense solution to a number of problems.

"They've created this community and network of people who know one another and are willing to help one another," she said. 

Financial incentives

Not only that, Lantz said the program saves us all money.

"We know that normally, people when their health declines or if they're isolated they start to need more healthcare services, and this allows people to stay in their home as opposed to seek placement in a more expensive model like a long-term care home."

According to McMillan, the Oasis Kingston program costs around $130,000 per year, and if even a fraction of the residents went to long-term care, it would cost the government much more, she said.

Ontario's Ministry of Senior Affairs also seems to see the program's value.

In November, they announced an investment of more than $15 million over two years to continue supporting "naturally occurring retirement communities," such as Oasis.

Oasis T.O.

Toronto's own Oasis is in the works, and McMillan, with the help of OpenLab, a think-tank within the University Hospital Network, has already secured funding for the project from the Toronto Central Local Health Integration Network.

It will be run where McMillan now lives, at 400 Walmer Rd. 

Information sessions will be held at the building this Tuesday and Thursday at 10:30 a.m. and at 1:30 p.m.

For Kroff, the expansion of the program is exciting news. She says Oasis came to her when she was "at a crossroads" and didn't know if she could stay in her apartment.

"When Christine had a meeting and she stood up and said what she was going to do ... I said to myself, 'This is going to change my life.' And it did."


Taylor Simmons

Digital associate producer

Taylor Simmons is a digital associate producer for CBC Calgary. She has a masters in journalism from Western University and has worked as a multiplatform reporter in newsrooms across Canada, including in St. John's and Toronto. You can reach her at