Original Published 00:17 Apr 20, 2022

By Sara Beth Dacombe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The problem of social isolation for seniors was already a public health crisis before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the effects of isolation have undoubtedly worsened in the last two years, leading to increased loneliness, depression, and anxiety among our oldest citizens.

“We want to communicate a message of welcome and invite seniors to start coming back,” says Damien Gagné, the coordinator for Niverville Service to Seniors. “If you can feel ready to do so, it’s time.”

Gagné says the program is once again looking to fill the void left when COVID-19 cancelled so much of the community’s recreational programming for seniors—and they’re looking to do so in new and creative ways. 

The Effects of Isolation 

Service to Seniors has been around for more than 10 years. The group used to be known for its flagship program, the weekly meal offered every Tuesday at the Golden Friendship Centre.

Over time, however, Gagné says the program instead became focused on offering information services, help with paperwork, low-cost rides, volunteerism, and activities such as monthly educational workshops or outings, healthy eating, the walking club and fitness groups.

When COVID-19 hit, the program was suspended. Gagné himself had to take a leave in order to provide care for his son.

Since his return, the lull in services, combined with intense public health restrictions, has produced enormous challenges. What had once been a thriving network of services designed to meet the needs of seniors had become inoperable.

“When I came back, it was almost impossible to get anyone to attend anything,” says Gagné, whose office is located at the Heritage Centre. “I mean, we couldn’t. Everyone was afraid. People were isolated and seniors became depressed.” 

Many seniors who Gagné was previously able to connect with lost touch with him, especially if they didn’t live within the centre.

“Due to the restrictions, seniors living independently or elsewhere could not even enter the building. It really affected their ability to see me,” says Gagné. “Conversely, working at the [Niverville Credit Union Manor] also gave me the ability to see what the residents there were going through. They were only allowed to see one or maybe two designated caregivers a week, for one hour only. No grandkids. The seniors were in shock. They had never experienced something like this.”

Gagné says that he saw depression set in, and then frailty. The community’s day program, which provides brain activities for seniors suffering the effects of stroke, dementia, Alzheimer’s, or other physical or mental ailments, was suspended and exercises previously used to slow down the progression of disease became inaccessible.

“Every day I would be sitting in my office in the manor, the phone isn’t ringing, but I’m trying the best that I can to reach out to people,” he says. “The people I did talk to were often confused, depressed, and concerned. Every time I had an interaction, it was an interaction that broke my heart. And people started passing away.”

Gagné says the lack of stimulation is a powerful thing. And it didn’t just last for two or three weeks, it has lasted for years.

“Everyone needs a reason to live. It got to the point, even for me, where I was so burned out I could hardly function. My productivity had gone down. My thoughts were scattered. My social skills were reduced. And that’s just for me, and I’m not a senior. Those challenges happened two- or three-fold for seniors.”

Gagné says that every lifted restriction has been an opportunity to bring back some type of programming. But there is a long road to bringing back the full depth of programming they once had.

“When something would lift, we would try to plan an event or an outing, and then the restrictions would come back and we would have to cancel,” he explains. “It got to the point where seniors no longer trusted that what we were planning would happen. So why would they make plans to go? They disengaged.” 

However, the program is finally starting to pick up again. According to Gagné, a major change in mindset has taken told since the onset of the Omicron variant. 

“People are no longer afraid of the disease,” Gagné says. “A lot of people have gotten it even after having gotten their vaccinations, and they’ve survived. Instead of being afraid, seniors have said, ‘I only have a limited time left.’ They’re starting to go out, and I’ve been trying to light that fire and light that passion for life again. It’s been hard, but I’m trying and I’m not going to stop.”

Passion for Life

Even before the pandemic, Gagné says a greater focus should have been placed on the issue of improving seniors’ mental health.

“Seniors have a lot to deal with, and a lot of that often has to do with loneliness, physical aging, and coming to terms with reduced physical ability,” says Gagné.

His experience with the local seniors population has allowed him to learn about the previous generations and their ability to cope with challenges or trauma.

“We have an older generation that didn’t really focus on mental health,” he adds. “Traumas would happen but get buried. People would self-soothe with drugs and alcohol, or maybe cut family off or whatever they felt they needed to do. A lot of seniors I work with also put a lot of their focus on faith to get them through. [Faith] is actually a saving grace and creates something positive to focus on.”

Gagné says that he also draws strength from his faith. 

“When you look at church services and those types of gatherings, it has given our seniors something to look forward to, and at the same time something to fight for during COVID.”

One challenge relating to faith, however, is that it can foster a reluctance among some to be open to learning new things, which Gagné says is especially true when it comes to mental health. He says that the children of seniors are often taking the lead to inspire their elders to be open to viewing their overall health in new ways.

“I’m noticing a generational change, and there seems to be more open to the science of mental health,” says Gagné. “It’s being talked about in public now more than ever, and that’s a positive thing. There’s been a lot of suffering in silence for a long time… but people are learning that you don’t have to live [that way].”

He encourages people to make a mental health plan with members of their family, or with their support network, when they feel well. This can make it easier for people to ask for help at a later point in life when they aren’t feeling well.

It’s all about building resilience, Gagné says, and finding new ways to bring passion back into one’s life.

“We need to find those reasons to live,” he says. “A reason to live could be beauty, family, fitness, food, sharing a meal with others, art, music, prose… whatever it is, go full on toward it.”

Gagné says this advice could apply to anyone, regardless of age.

“It’s time to reactivate our brains, which have been a bit more dormant than usual lately. It’s time to find what sparks passion. And I really want to encourage seniors to take part in our programming. There is a positive value in it.” 

Programming 

To directly assist with improving the mental health of seniors, Niverville Service to Seniors has access to free counselling sessions through volunteers from Providence University College in nearby Otterburne.

Fitness activities are also proving to be popular as the program regroups. And the most popular fitness activity of them all? Pickleball.

“The most successful program right now is pickleball,” says Gagné. “It’s been huge! Seniors love it. The official seniors pickleball day is Wednesdays from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. They also have general pickleball open on Tuesdays, but it’s been like 90 percent seniors on that day as well because they love it so much.”

He admits that he regularly gets beat by 65- to 75-year-old seniors.

“On Tuesdays, anyone of all ages can come out and you regularly see seniors compete with the younger generations. There’s entry level, or there are athletic-level seniors who are cracking it back and forth at a high level and it’s really exciting. It’s the kind of game where, the more you play, the more excited you get about it. It’s catching on and people get fired up about it.”

Fitness for 55+ is a continuing program which features classes run by a qualified fitness instructor. The instructor leads the group in a series of active movements for all fitness levels, such as core and leg strengthening.

“There is also a focus on fall recovery,” says Gagné. “So if you fall, he teaches you how to get up, which is really important. Our seniors who attend this, even if they are super fit, it can challenge them and give their muscles a real workout. And seniors of lesser fitness levels have discovered it is really a life-saving program.”

Gagné shares a store about one fitness student who reported a remarkable improvement to their health due to the community’s fitness programs.

“She had arthritis and her body was just so sore. She could barely walk up the stairs anymore,” says Gagné. “But when she discovered our fitness program and the walking club, she made a lot of friends, she got a lot more social, and she was able to get more active. The next thing you know she’s been going to all of our fitness programs and now she is completely able to walk up and down the stairs. She’s active all the time and volunteering all over town.”

Through the fitness programming is held at the Heritage Centre, it’s available to all seniors throughout the community.

To accommodate more participants, and give the program a literal breath of fresh air, Gagné says they may move to an outdoor location when the weather allows.

“We may move to Hespeler Park throughout the summertime, and then in the fall we would like to move to the new Community Resource and Recreation Centre,” says Gagné, who sees a great potential in hosting seniors events at the brand-new facility. “It’s a great space, it’s an active space, and it would be nice to put our activities where they belong. A fitness activity in the CRRC just makes sense.”

Service to Seniors also operates a low-cost rides program, a transportation service which coordinates volunteers to drive seniors to assist with running errands or to get to appointments.

“Oftentimes, the children are working and they can’t take time off to drive a family member around,” says Gagné. “So it really helps out families who have that kind of issue. It’s relative inexpensive, especially with gas prices the way they are. It’s $40 to the city, and the driver will drive them there, wait, and then drive them back.”

The program also arranges rides to Steinbach or St. Pierre at the cost of $30. Within Niverville, the cost is $10.

Gagné also points to a number of new initiatives in the works, including plans to organize a multicultural cooking class.

“This would most likely be done through the CRRC, if we could make use of the beautiful kitchen there,” he says. “We might coordinate with Providence volunteers again, as they have a strong multicultural student representation and have networks within their community willing to come share their skills and knowledge of other cultural cooking and their recipes from their home countries.”

The cooking class would focus on healthy and affordable recipes, as well as new and exciting flavours.

“We want to offer something that is not just the ordinary around here, something that will spur on the passion of creativity and at the same time help people learn more about embracing and understanding new cultures,” says Gagné. “Our town is changing and this is one way we can embrace that change.”

Additionally, Gagné is happy to report that the meal delivery program is back. Service to Seniors has contracted with a company called Heart to Home Meals, a frozen meal delivery program made specifically for seniors.

“The company is located in Winnipeg and is a Canada-wide corporation, but they are locally owned,” says Gagné. “They have a whole section on special diets. A lot of seniors have diets specific to celiac needs, lactose-free, or low sodium and [the company] has a section specifically for that.”

Gagné hopes to be able to expand the Service to Seniors program even further to possibly introduce a fresh wave of creative programming for seniors in the Niverville area. He hopes to collaborate with local talent to lead arts-inspired activities, such as book clubs, origami, making Christmas decorations, stenciling, cardmaking, paint-pouring, and more.

“I want to reiterate the importance of not giving up,” he says. “Fight for your health. Fight for your happiness.”

This item reprinted with permission from Niverville Citizen, Niverville, Manitoba