Drop-in program builds social connections for seniors during COVID-19

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By Allison Brown, Canadian Red Cross Digital Volunteer

Seniors, who are among those at greatest risk of severe illness due to COVID-19, have found many of their facilities closed and programs cancelled during the pandemic. After 108 days in self-isolation, 75-year-old James Burgess decided to take action and assist his community on the south shore of Montréal by applying for a grant from the Canadian Red Cross.
Répit aînés Montérégie Senior Respite, a non-profit which aims to provide a stimulating and welcoming environment for adults, and respite and support to caregivers.Burgess is the treasurer at Répit aînés Montérégie Senior Respite, a non-profit which aims to provide a stimulating and welcoming environment for adults, and respite and support to caregivers.
Over these past several months, social isolation due to a reduction in services has resulted in increased levels of depression and anxiety for seniors and their caregivers, who are often seniors themselves. 
With that in mind, the Centre wanted to establish a “Coffee Meet-up” - a drop-in program where seniors could socialize in a safe environment over coffee and snacks, while physically distanced at large tables.
“Caregivers were exhausted,” says Burgess. “The ability to socialize in a safe environment was critical to their mental health.” 
Protocols were developed to have two staff clean and disinfect the space prior to opening, as well as conduct constant sanitizing of the space and washrooms during program hours. Upon arrival, participants are asked to put on a mask, wash their hands, have their temperature taken and asked about their health prior to being given a contact tracing number, although Burgess says they have so many frequently returning visitors he “knows pretty much everyone by name.” 
The regular, informal drop-in format provides an opportunity for seniors to connect socially without a rigid time or required appointment.

“The fact that it isn’t like a course or a class where he feels he needs to commit to a particular time and place, and the friendly and secure environment, helps him feel more at ease,” says Patricia Wallace, referring to her brother, Donald, who has high-functioning autism. 
A Canadian flag with a province of Quebec flag outside the facility.The Coffee Meet-up has also filled a void left by many other social clubs in the community that had to be shuttered due to COVID-19, such as a nearby crafting group at a local church. Welcoming signs with smiling emojis and flags outside the centre attract the curiosity of people passing by, and Burgess says initial nervousness is often replaced with return visits.
The Coffee Meet-up is proving fruitful in other ways as well. It’s forged new connections in the community as visitors leave with pamphlets about the centre, raising awareness of other services the centre normally provides, particularly for the support of caregivers of seniors with loss of cognitive or physical autonomy due to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, dementia or disability who often rely on community agencies for support. 
The financial assistance provided by the Red Cross through the Government of Canada’s Emergency Community Support Fund covers the Coffee Meet-up's staffing costs, “so we are allowed to serve the community,” says Burgess. 
They hope to expand the program to offer computer skills training to allow isolated seniors more opportunities to connect online. To date, the oldest participant has been 92! 

“We are open to everyone.”
The Canadian Red Cross is funding the continuation of this work thanks to the generous support of the Government of Canada’s Emergency Community Support Fund granting program.

If your organization is a non-profit that delivers services to those who are the most vulnerable to the health and social impacts of COVID-19, you may also be eligible for grant funding or free personal protective equipment (PPE) and training.

A second round of funding, PPE and training is available from October 5 through October 30, 2020. For more information, please visit www.redcross.ca/communityorganizations.

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