Supporting Community Health: Seniors Helping Seniors

Topics: Ontario, Community Health, Emergencies and Disasters in Canada, Volunteer
Suzanne Leonard, Communications Volunteer | July 29, 2020

As COVID-19 spread across the country this year it quickly became common knowledge that older Canadians have a far higher risk of developing serious, potentially life-threatening complications. One of the vital protection measures is the directive to “Stay home, stay safe.” Virtually overnight this became an urgent priority for many seniors – along with an equally urgent need for the services and support that would allow them to do so.

The Red Cross’ Etobicoke Meals on Wheels (MOW) office in Toronto is one of those vital services, and delivery relies on a big team of volunteers. But at the start of the pandemic that team dropped by half to 55 people while the requests for meal delivery went up dramatically. That likely doesn’t come as a surprise, but this might: about a quarter of those remaining volunteers are seniors themselves.

Red Cross Community Services Assistant Martina Sousa is part of the 3-person team that runs the MOW program, she says “All of our seniors who wanted to stay on stepped up their volunteer work to do all 3 weekly delivery days at the height of the pandemic. Now that meal delivery service has gone back to 5 days a week (nearly 1000 meals in total), they’ve all told me they’re willing to come in whenever they’re needed. They’re amazing people!”

Dave Thomas (age 65) and his wife Jan (age 64, a senior-in-training) are the type of husband and wife team that exude a happy energy, whatever the setting. Ask them why they’ve been extra involved lately, Dave laughs and Jan replies “Dave’s been doing it for years and years now. And he’s the kind of guy that a pandemic’s not going to stop him. If he thinks something’s important to do – which this is – nothing’s going to stop him.”

91-year-old Peter Hay is well aware of the health risks associated with COVID-19, but takes it all in stride with a matter-of-factness that hints at his Scottish heritage. “What else am I going to do, sit at home all the time? Got to do something,” he says. “I think we’re well protected with the gloves and the mask. At every stop we wash our hands (with sanitizer). Avoid it the best you can,” he adds with a shrug and a smile.

The valuable contribution these seniors make to community health shouldn’t be underestimated. Carmela Cobham (age 79) explains, “If it weren’t for MOW a lot of my clients don’t have any communication with too many people. They have no one else. They don’t get out much, if at all. Speaking to someone is healthy for them.” She adds reflectively, “And I just felt that if I didn’t get out to continue with my volunteering, who would do it? Because I know that volunteers are hard to come by, and even more so during the pandemic.”

Adrian Smith has been with MOW for 25 years, “It’s in my blood now,” he says with a chuckle. He’s frank about what motivates his volunteerism: “Because people have to eat! That’s why I do it. I think these people that we deliver to really are in dire straits food-wise, for the most part.” Meals aren’t the only essentials volunteers deliver, they all strive to create a warm and uplifting experience with every client visit, however brief.  “I try to cheer them up,” says Adrian. “Some of them come out in their pyjamas so if they’re dressed I say “Oh, are you going dancing?” and they get a kick out of that.”

Ask Dave Thomas to describe MOW’s impact on community health and he sums it up with one word, “Immeasurable.” Apart from meal delivery it’s also a friendly check-in visit. Dave points out, “We always check with them, we like to know if there’s anything else being done for them besides our meals. When we were on 3 days a week we had to check and make sure they were getting help on the other days. They’re very happy that we’re there, the fact of the connection with the outside world to see what’s going on... Because even though they were very grateful that we did it before, they’re even more so that we’re doing it now. And we feel that and we’re happy to be able to do that. I think it helps their spirits.”

Seniors may be among the most vulnerable during the current health crisis, but if anything the COVID-19 pandemic has motivated this group of proactive seniors and their volunteer cohorts to be out helping the community more often, not less. Martina Sousa puts it this way, “Many of our seniors have been through a lot of things in their lives. I think they’re helping (other) seniors because they understand, they know that people are lonely, and may not get anything to eat. It hasn’t surprised me. The kind of volunteers we have are amazing, it’s just the kind of hearts that these people have.”