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The power of human connection

Strong relationships mean strong health


Social isolation and chronic loneliness are major risk factors that have been linked to poor physical and mental health. This is especially true for seniors due to large changes in health and social connections that come as a part of growing older. Many seniors who are socially isolated often have no one to talk to about their fears and anxieties. This can lead to an increased risk of mental illness, including depression and even suicide.

“There's a lot of research, especially in the last 10 years, around social isolation and a lot of it points to some common themes,” explains Annastasia Stevens, Co-Executive Director of the Calgary Seniors’ Resource Society (Calgary Seniors). “We really see that isolation is exasperated by major life transitions, so it might be things like the death of a spouse, or moving, and having to sell their long-term home or downsizing. It might be retirement. We see that sense of social isolation linked to those major life transitions.”

In cities like Calgary, weather can also be a factor preventing seniors from getting out and connecting. Some seniors go weeks at a time without seeing someone, which translates into a huge impact on mental health. Annastasia says Calgary Seniors typically see an increase in requests during the winter months.

“Weather really impacts people's ability to connect socially and to get out and do those acts of daily living, like picking up their groceries, getting mail, getting some exercise,” says Annastasia. “We know that exercise and good healthy food and social connection are paramount to healthy aging, but it can be difficult for people to be able to access those things when they're inhibited by snow and ice.”

Through Family & Community Support Services (FCSS), a joint municipal-provincial funding program designed to establish, administer, and operate preventive social services, The City of Calgary is supporting a few initiatives led by Calgary Seniors, including leading research in social inclusion support for vulnerable seniors.

“Social connection and having a sense of purpose is what's leading to longevity and as an organization, we aim to facilitate those connections between our volunteers and our seniors,” continues Annastasia. “We have access to social workers as well if seniors require more professionalized support to help with managing life changes and challenges. It's this holistic community of support that helps seniors find those connections and to feel a part of the community.”

I know there are people in my building who are socially isolated, who lack contact with the outside world and don’t have anyone to chat with,” Dianne continues. “Sometimes talking on the phone helps, but it's nothing like meeting somebody and giving them a hug. I think the pandemic brought the conversation to the table. I like being alone but there is a limit to how long you can be alone before you start to feel isolated.

Calgary Seniors currently has nine volunteer-delivered social support programs assisting seniors. Seniors may reach out directly to access the programs, which range from transportation, a friendly check-in or visit, shopping or pet assistance, or may be referred from other agencies or even family.

“We’re pretty passionate about creatively problem-solving social isolation,” says Annastasia. “It can be those little things that give someone a boost and maybe, help them out of a blue day if they know someone was thinking about them; if they get a friendly phone call or receive a beautiful card in the mail. Older adults can feel reluctant to ask for help. There may even be fear about being removed from their home or that their pet might be taken away. Calgary Seniors aims to meet people where they are at. Often focusing on a practical task, such as grocery shopping, allows seniors to feel more comfortable and the social relationship with the volunteer can unfold naturally.”

Dianne, 78, and Debra, 42, have been friends for the past six years and were matched through the Shopping Companion program. Dianne has lived in Calgary for nearly 60 years, and when she was in her late teens, she started losing her peripheral vision due to an inherited disease, until finally twenty years ago she lost most vision.

“My mother, who had the same condition, told me that just because you are blind, doesn’t mean you just give up,” says Dianne. “I live alone and do my own cooking; I’m quite independent. But Debra has reduced a lot of stress in my life. Before she came along it was hit and miss through other programs, and when my son wasn't busy he could help me shop, or I could get one of the neighbors to shop online for me, but it was always a bit stressful shopping and getting groceries.”

Aside from the shopping assistance, after six years, Debra and Dianne have developed a true friendship. “We laugh a lot when we are together and she has taught me to be more open,” says Dianne. She says she enjoys hearing about things from Debra that aren’t necessarily the topics of discussion in her senior’s residence and Debra enjoys sharing her life with Dianne.

“Dianne gives me all sorts of advice, we’ve been through a lot over the past years,” says Debra. “I’ve been through a divorce, my sister has had kids, I quit my job, I travel. There's just been countless times Dianne has provided advice to me on my life and I so appreciate it because it's just a different perspective coming from someone who is not my age. It's nice to have that personal connection with her and I honestly feel like it's one of those things in my life where I don't feel like it's a chore. It's something that I get to do because I want to.”

Debra says she started volunteering with Calgary Seniors as she wanted to spend more time with seniors “and people who are older and smarter than I am. I was just working all the time or traveling, and I lived kind of a selfish lifestyle. I knew giving back and volunteering was something I had the ability to do.”

seniors

Did you know?

  • The Calgary Seniors’ Resource Centre has a roster of 3,000 volunteers.
  • The City along with The Calgary Seniors’ Resource Society and several partner organizations is part of an age-friendly collaborative to ensure Calgary is a city where all people have lifelong opportunities to thrive.
  •  Calgary Seniors receives funding from The City through Family & Community Support Services (FCSS), a joint municipal-provincial funding program designed to establish, administer and operate preventive social services.
  •  According to the 2021 Federal Census there were 177,405 Calgarians aged 65 years and over.
  • The population of Calgarians aged 65 years and over is forecast to increase by 79 per cent to 295,000 by 2041.
healthy seniors

This whole experience has taught me a lot,” says Debra. “I think that before I didn't really spend a lot of time being in the moment. I take my time with things now – I feel like that is something that I've gained from our relationship, not rushing through everything and really living life.

Categories: Mental health, Seniors

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