Standing up for seniors

Children, Youth & Families

Examining the pandemic’s impact on those 55+

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted many of the systemic issues faced by seniors and older adults in Manitoba, including social isolation, mental health, and quality care.

But while these issues were exacerbated during the pandemic, they are not new. Charitable organizations like A&O: Support Services for Older Adults have been working to address these challenges for decades.

“We haven’t had to change our direction [due to the pandemic] because we’ve known these things were always important to support older Winnipeggers and older Manitobans in aging well,” says Amanda Macrae, executive director of A&O Support Services.

A&O was established in 1957 following a study reporting poverty, loneliness, and poor health among Winnipeg seniors – issues that remain at the forefront today for Manitoba’s older adult population.

While many charitable organizations and community groups are working to improve the lives of seniors, Manitoba does not yet have an office dedicated to coordinating and overseeing the variety of services and resources that support older adults.

A 2020 opinion published in the Winnipeg Free Press by authors Trish Rawsthorne, Laura Funk and Brianne Goertzen recommended the establishment of a seniors advocate in Manitoba, citing a need for greater transparency, oversight, and access, while ensuring older adults in Manitoba have a voice.

Seniors wearing masks playing crib.
Activities at Good Neighbours Active Living Centre.

“[A seniors advocate] could identify and analyze systemic challenges facing seniors, collaborate and work with service providers, raise awareness of available resources and service gaps and make recommendations to government to improve delivery of services and the welfare of older adults,” they wrote.

When COVID-19 forced Good Neighbours Active Living Centre to shut its doors, it mobilized to provide resources to help the older adults it serves to isolate in place, safely. Located on Henderson Highway, Good Neighbours is a charity offering adults 55+ ways to stay active, connect to the community and to meet new friends. The pandemic saw Good Neighbours expand its meal delivery program, organize grocery drives and phone conversations, and launch virtual programming, including fitness classes, painting classes, and meetings for its harmonica group.

“It was amazing to see how many people embraced this change and are still embracing it,” says Susan Sader, executive director of Good Neighbours.

“We offered some virtual classes this fall because we heard from people that they still wanted this option, and they all filled up.”

After 10 months of closure, Good Neighbours reopened its doors in September 2021, providing many of its regular fitness, creative and special interest programs in person, while maintaining virtual programs. As we continue to navigate the pandemic, Sader emphasized the need to address the ongoing and lasting effects of COVID-19.

“We’ve heard about COVID fog where people feel their thinking is kind of fuzzy,” Sader says.

“There’s a nervousness about driving because they haven’t been driving as much as they used to. Some of their confidence in their social skills has diminished. So, we’re trying to get some funding to be able to address that as well.”

Similarly, A&O partnered with the City of Winnipeg, CAA and Harvest Manitoba to provide food hampers, and also distributed wellness kits containing essential items and resources.

“We’ve had people call us and thank us and say that it’s so good to know that there are people that are thinking about [them],” Macrae says.

“It’s critical, because sometimes our [older adult] population feels like nobody’s watching out for them and that definitely shouldn’t be happening.”

A&O is also continuing to provide and expand programs like Senior Centre Without Walls, which provides activities and social connections via telephone and Zoom, and was supported through a Winnipeg Foundation grant.

“[The Foundation] allows us, and encourages us, to be innovative and think outside the box,” says Macrae.

“We’ve been here pre-COVID, we’re here during, and we need to be sustained post-COVID to help people age well.”

Susan Sader

“We offered some virtual classes this fall because we heard from people that they still wanted this option, and they all filled up.”

Susan Sader, executive director of Good Neighbours Active Living Centre.

The Winnipeg Foundation supports a variety of senior-serving programs by making grants to charities working in all Cause areas in our community. This has been especially important during the pandemic.

Understanding there are countless needs that have arisen due to COVID-19, The Winnipeg Foundation proactively made grants to personal care homes during the early days of the pandemic. The Convalescent Home of Winnipeg, located on Hugo Street, was one of many personal care homes that received a $5,000 grant.

The Foundation also supported many seniors’ centres. For example, Gwen Secter Creative Living Centre is a multi-purpose senior facility that promotes the physical, mental, social, and spiritual well-being of older adults. It received grants totaling $65,000 to help combat senior isolation and depression by offering both mobile meals and other low-cost recreational programs.

Aiding charities’ advocacy efforts

Donors step up to support seniors

Karen Meelker understands first-hand the challenges in navigating the support services for seniors and older adults. As an advocate for her parents for many years, she experienced how complex and difficult it can be to ensure that loved ones have the care and supports they need.

“I can’t understand how those without a personal family advocate can navigate these systems at all,” Meelker says.

“If [someone doesn’t] have anyone even visiting them in the care home, who are the eyes and ears for that person?”

The challenges that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic exponentially increased many of the anxieties families have in ensuring their loved ones have access to appropriate supports and care.

“If you’re not there and you can’t be there every single day, it can be very worrisome,” Meelker says. “It’s not over yet, and we lost an incredible amount of senior citizens that we didn’t need to lose.”

The discussions Meelker had with her friend, David Bowles, about her advocacy for her parents inspired Bowles to start the Karen Meelker, David L. Bowles and Deidre Beaulieu, Advocating for Manitoba Seniors Fund at The Winnipeg Foundation, which will support local charities that provide advocacy, supports and innovative programs for seniors and their families.

“I’m really excited about [the fund],” Meelker says. “I hope that we can help organizations, and in turn, help individuals and help families.”

“The smallest things can make the biggest changes.”

This story is featured in the Fall 2021 issue of our Working Together magazine. Download or view the full issue on our Publications page.

About the photo

A class at Good Neighbours Active Living Centre.

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