A new program at Century House aims to help improve the lives of New West seniors who are feeling lonely or isolated.
Seven seniors recently completed training for the new Senior Peer Volunteer Visitors program and are ready to meet with clients who would like some conversation and companionship in their lives.
“If you know somebody who could benefit from somebody coming to talk to them, have a conversation and companionship, give us a call,” said Lois Brassart, assistant coordinator of the Volunteer Visitors program. “We are waiting.”
Dr. Glynis Marks, a professional consultant and coordinator of Century House Senior Peer Counselling, is providing training and ongoing supervision for the Volunteer Visitors program. A preliminary intake process will determine whether seniors are need of assistance through Century House’s Senior Peer Counselling program or, the new Volunteer Visitors program, or need to be connected to professional counselling services.
“There is a continuum of support,” Brassart said. “The Volunteer Visitors is just adding to that.”
Senior Peer Counselling regularly receives calls from seniors, family members and caregivers who are seeking support, rather than counselling, in the form of conversation, companionship and help making sense of their new lives, often as a result of health issues or transitions in living arrangements.
“Some of these seniors are experiencing medical conditions associated with limited mobility or are in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease with physical or cognitive decline that might preclude participation in counselling. Many of these seniors are housebound, often lonely and isolated,” said a press release. “These callers are looking for a different kind of support, not counselling per se, but a visit from a volunteer visitor, a peer who has the interest and time for conversation and companionship.”
The Volunteer Visitors pilot program attempts to address the loneliness and social isolation that can put seniors at risk for mental health issues like depression or add to the cognitive and physical decline associated with other conditions.
Studies have shown that loneliness is a determinant of health, with a recent study estimating loneliness shortens a person’s life by 15 years.
“It leads to early death – it’s as simple as that - because people just don’t feel that there is anything to live for,” Brassart said of loneliness. “Amazingly enough, one visit a week for an hour – and knowing that person is going to come back the next week – can make all the difference in somebody going, ‘Oh my gosh, somebody cares.’”
Because trained visitors can help restore a sense of meaning and value for seniors, the pilot project meets the city’s vision of being a Compassionate City that nurtures healthy individuals and families, is age friendly and creates quality of life for individuals and their families. The City of New Westminster provided Century House with a $3,000 grant to launch the program.
Brassart, a senior peer counsellor at Century House, said some people who seek assistance through that program get to a point where they no longer need peer counselling but may not yet be connected to the community and could still benefit from a visit with a volunteer.
“They are still really lonely or isolated. We can’t continue to counsel them because we have a waiting list for people who have emotional support,” she said. “We came up with this idea of a volunteer visitor that would come and just listen. It might be listening, playing cards.”
Others who may benefit from a visit include seniors who are “elder orphans” as their adult children aren’t nearby, or caregivers who are housebound tending to the needs of a loved one.
Volunteer Visitors and clients will determine where, when and how often they will meet.
“We are saying once a week,” Brassart said. “Caregivers are sometimes stuck in the house with the person that’s ill, so that once a week could go on for a while because they can’t get out.”
While people who are isolated, such as those who are in the early stages of dementia, may be more comfortable meeting at their homes, Brassart said some people may prefer to meet at the mall or Century House, which can help them become more confident about venturing out to places where they can socialize.
“What we’ve learned through Seniors Peer Counselling is seniors are really resilient – they just have to be reminded,” she said. “They have been through so much.”
Century House will be reporting back to the city with results of the pilot project, which could serve as a template for other organizations wanting to offer volunteer visitor programs.
If you’re a senior living in New West and are feeling lonely or isolated and would like some conversation and companionship – or if you know of a senior who might welcome a Volunteer Visitor – call 604-519-1064.