Call volumes soar at seniors helpline as COVID-19 plunges more people into isolation

Many seniors in Toronto were already suffering from loneliness, but the pandemic has made the problem much worse.

Loneliness among seniors was already a widespread issue, but pandemic has made it much worse

Helena Bowkun says the Toronto Seniors Helpline has helped her get through 'so many mornings where I'd wake up and I'd think, I can't do this. I can't do another day of COVID.' (Mark Bochsler/CBC News)

Helena Bowkun calls the Toronto Seniors Helpline every day  — sometimes two or three times if things are really tough.   

At 69, Bowkun has struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for almost her whole life. A former concert pianist, several of her close friends from the music community, who were older than her, have died. She hesitates to lean too much on other friends, for fear she'll "wear them out."

"Sometimes I just need to have human contact," she said. 

The helpline, run by WoodGreen Community Services, is staffed with trained social workers.  For years, they've helped her manage daily crippling anxiety.  

But when COVID-19 hit, she became "an absolute total complete nervous wreck," Bowkun said. In addition to fear of the virus itself, many of the activities that gave her joy, especially attending concerts, came to a grinding halt. 

"Everything just took a dive," she said. "There were so many mornings where I'd wake up and I'd think 'I can't do this, I can't do another day of COVID.  I just can't do it. It's just too hard.'"

Rochelle McAlister, who manages seniors mental health and addictions programs at WoodGreen Community Services, says loneliness among seniors has grown substantially during the pandemic. (Nicole Ireland/CBC News)

Often, one of the first things Bowkun does is call the helpline — and the voice at the other end of the phone calms her down and gets her moving. 

"That's like having a good friend on call," she said. 

Many seniors in Toronto were already suffering from social isolation before the pandemic, said Rochelle McAlister, who manages mental health and addictions programs for seniors — including the Toronto Seniors Helpline — at WoodGreen Community Services. 

But COVID-19 has made the situation far worse.

"Loneliness has been huge," McAlister said.

"Maybe they don't have a family that's connected to them or because of COVID or other reasons they can't see their family," she said. "The formal services have to take that place of family."

Between April 1 and Nov. 30, the helpline fielded more than 22,000 incoming calls, she said.  That's more in eight months than the service had in the entire previous year. 

Although many seniors have called for practical help about things like how to get financial assistance or accessing groceries during the pandemic lockdown, there has also been "a huge spike in mental health crisis," McAlister said. 

As so many people have replaced in-person social interactions with Zoom and Facetime calls, many seniors who don't have access to that technology or "who haven't been able to adapt" to it have been left behind even further, she said. 

The only technology needed to use the helpline is a phone. Although its mandate is primarily to serve Toronto seniors living in the community, the pandemic has been so distressing that some elderly people have called from inside long-term care homes. 

An elderly resident of a long-term care home in Toronto is pictured on Dec. 23, 2020. Although the seniors helpline is mostly intended for seniors living in the community, some nursing home residents have called as they suffer loneliness during lockdown. (Evan Mitsui/CBC News)

One of the social workers staffing the helpline, XJ Ng, vividly remembers one of those callers. 

"She had been in lockdown for months now," he said. "The sheer loneliness, it's really heartbreaking."

The increase in calls is partly fuelled by people who weren't suffering from loneliness before. 

"We've gotten more calls from seniors who are self-isolating, so seniors who would usually go out and visit their family or visit their friends ... no longer feel safe doing so," Ng said.  

XJ Ng, a social worker at the helpline, says they're receiving many calls from seniors who normally have family and friends in their lives, but are self-isolating to stay safe from COVID-19 infection. (XJ Ng)

In addition, family members and caregivers often call to find out how to support their loved one in isolation.  People also call if they haven't seen an elderly neighbour for a while — an action McAlister encourages.  WoodGreen has a crisis team that can respond if a senior is in trouble, and can refer seniors to other community programs — including volunteer-driven "friendly visiting" services that have now replaced in-person visits with regular phone chats. 

Despite the increased workload, McAlister and Ng said staff are ready to help more people — and worry about seniors who might be suffering in silence.  

Bowkun, too, encourages fellow seniors who are struggling to use the helpline. 

"If you're lonely, or you're stressed or you're overwhelmed, reach out," she said. 

"Don't just sit there and wither on the inside ...  We need each other."

To reach the Toronto Seniors Helpline, call 416-217-2077.  The line is staffed 365 days a year. On weekdays, the helpline is open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.  On weekends, it's open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

If you need help outside of those hours, or you live outside of Toronto, you can also call 211. 

If you or someone you know is in danger or in an emergency, call 911. 








Nicole Ireland is a CBC News journalist with a special interest in health and social justice stories. Based in Toronto, she has lived and worked in Thunder Bay, Ont.; Iqaluit, Nunavut; and Beirut, Lebanon.


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