Physical distancing and limiting face-to-face interaction with individuals from outside our households have been essential steps in preventing the spread of COVID-19. But for many, these measures have also caused social isolation and loneliness.
Just as older people are the most vulnerable to COVID-19, they are also particularly vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation — especially after 16 months of the pandemic.
‘Senior Centre Without Walls’ is a free national telephone-based group activity program for connecting isolated seniors and older adults. Age-Friendly Peterborough — a city plan to enhance programs, services, and infrastructure for older adults in the Peterborough area — has brought the program to Peterborough after learning the number of isolated seniors has risen due to COVID.
To launch the program in Peterborough this past May, Age-Friendly Peterborough partnered with Activity Haven Senior Centre and the Peterborough Public Library. Senior Centre Without Walls targets adults in the community 50 years of age and older, allowing them to connect with others from the comfort of their own homes.
Jayne Culbert, Age-friendly Coordinator at the City of Peterborough, was aware of the program before COVID, she says the need for it in Peterborough became more apparent during the pandemic. Since most opportunities for remote socializing rely on computers and the internet, the program is ideal for those who don’t use technology or have internet access since it only requires a telephone.
“We heard about the number of people who were isolated in their home with very little community contact and connection,” Culbert explains. “That’s when we wanted to get this program running for our local Peterborough residents. Isolation is more detrimental to a person’s health than smoking or drinking — it affects their health not only mentally, but also physically.”
To participate in the program, people can register by calling Activity Haven at 705-876-1670 or, for those who use the internet, by emailing email@example.com. Upon registration, participants will be asked if they are okay to call in to join their activity, or if they prefer the moderator to call them. Those who opt to call in themselves are given a phone number and a passcode to dial on the date and time of their chosen activity.
Senior Centre Without Walls releases a bi-monthly calendar with various phone activity offerings, including chair yoga, books chats, tea and inspirational chats, stress busters, memoir writing, and more.
A copy of the Senior Centre Without Walls flyer, calendar, and activity descriptions area are available on the Activity Haven website at activityhaven.com. For those without internet access, print copies are available in the community at the Peterborough Public Library and Community Care Peterborough offices. You can also call Culbert at 705-748-8830 x3227 to have a calendar mailed to you.
According to Culbert, Senior Centre Without Walls is always looking for new ideas for telephone activities older adults might like to participate in, and so they have developed a survey. The survey is available online at surveymonkey.com/r/627DZ8X or you can contact Peterborough Public Library adult programming and outreach librarian Karen Bisschop at 705-745-5382 x2352 for a print copy.
Since it was first launched in May, Senior Centre Without Walls has received great feedback from participants according to Culbert. Their most popular activities are currently chair yoga and stress busters. Even though the program is still growing, Culbert says it’s already making a difference.
“We can touch one person’s life and make somebody’s day better,” she says. “That’s why we’re doing it.”
Anne Driscoll, the project lead for Senior Centre Without Walls, has personally witnessed how the program touches the lives of participants. In addition to her responsibilities as the project lead, Driscoll volunteers as the program’s moderator — meaning she sets up and monitors the calls to make sure everything runs smoothly.
“Being a part of these phone calls as a moderator, I listen to the impact this program is having on people,” Driscoll says. “To hear ‘I so look forward to this call.’ — call by call, you can hear they’re getting more comfortable with each other, and relationships are evolving. I’m honoured to be a part of it.”
One such participant is 95-year-old Henry Weitz, who has participated in the program since May. He says his phone conversations during the ‘Tea & Inspirational Chats’ activity are now the highlight of his week.
“We have a little group, and we talk about everything — when we were young and our whole lives,” Weitz tells kawarthaNOW. “It’s very interesting. I really enjoy every program. It helps me because my connection to the outside is not that good anymore. It keeps your brain going.”
“I must say that the program has been such a gift to me,” he adds. “Living in a retirement residence where most of the residents have some form of dementia, having these phone conversations is the best thing that happens to me all week. Other seniors should join this program. They would really enjoy it. I don’t think enough people know about it yet.”
That’s one of the biggest hurdles of the program so far, according to Culbert. Many isolated seniors do not have access to the internet, so getting the word out to them is a challenge.
Culbert says this is where they need the community’s help. Senior Centre Without Walls relies on word-of-mouth support from adult children and neighbours of seniors to spread the word about the program.
She suggests those looking to support the program print a copy of the flyer and schedule from the Activity Haven Senior Centre website at activityhaven.com, or pick up a print copy at the Peterborough Public Library or a Community Care Peterborough office, and share it with isolated seniors they know in the community.
If the senior in your life is nervous or hesitant to participate in the program, Culbert suggests you join the first call with them. If the senior just wants to listen without participating, Driscoll adds this is also allowed.
Best of all for seniors who are on a fixed income, the program is completely free. Presentations about the program are also available for clubs or groups that want to learn more.
Senior Centre Without Walls is also searching for community volunteers to be moderators and facilitators on the phone calls. Moderators help make sure the calls go smoothly and help promote the program, while facilitators lead activities during the calls. If you are interested in volunteering, contact Culbert at 705-748-8830 x3227 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.