Now Or Never

For lonely seniors, friendship is just a phone call away

Many Canadian seniors say the feel lonely and isolated. A call-in program for senior offers people over 55 a chance to connect with friends and participate in group activities and one senior says it saved her life.
More than 100 Manitobans are registered for the Senior Centre Without Walls. Many get on the phone several times a day. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

Every week day, Lydia Robertson gets on the phone and starts dialing. She's making calls that seniors all over Manitoba look forward to.

Robertson runs the Seniors Centre Without Walls (SCWW), a service offered through A&O: Support Services for Older Adults in Winnipeg. Five days a week, three times a day, they offer a variety of programs like language classes and music history over the phone to people over 55.

"It might sound weird but I think it saved my life," said Marilyn, who uses the service. Callers go by first names only for security reasons as many are vulnerable because of age or health reasons, and CBC has agreed to not use their family names. 

Some participants credit the program with saving their lives. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

After Marilyn's husband died, she went through a period of depression. "I was very down," said Marilyn. "I didn't want to see anybody, I stayed in bed."

Marilyn had stopped eating when a social worker told her about the SCWW.  

"When I joined, it really brought me back," she said. 

"I know she's not the only one," said Robertson. According to Statistics Canada, as many as 1.4 million seniors deal with loneliness. Clinical psychologist Ami Rokach studies loneliness in seniors and says it's a public health crisis.

"If you're alone and you have no one to go to, no one to listen to, you may feel like you're not important to anyone else," said Robertson. "If they're bored and don't have anyone around, they can join in on this phone number."

The SCWW offers a wide variety of programs, including bingo. Participants play along for fun on cards sent out in the mail. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

Getting to know each other's voices

More than 100 seniors are registered for the SCWW. They sign up for as many free programs as they want, and some are on the phone several times a day. 

They get to know each other's voices as they discuss books at the book club, learn about social media trends, participate in talent shows and try to solve brain teasers.

There's even bingo, with participants playing on cards sent out by mail.

"You hear other people's opinions," said Jean, who has been using the service for years. "We think of each other as friends even though we've never seen each other."

The SCWW started in 2009 and membership has grown every year since it started. Jean thinks it will continue to grow.

The SCWW allows people to make friends and create bonds, without ever meeting face to face. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

"It's good for everybody," said Jean. "Quite often our friends have passed away, the children have grown up and gone away, and you're left by yourself. A lot of people aren't physically able to go out and meet other people. With the Senior Centre Without Walls, as long as you can pick up the phone you can talk to friends."

To register for the Senior Centre Without Walls in Manitoba, contact A&O Support Services for Older Adults

Similar programs are also offered in Edmonton and Ottawa.