Helping Seniors

Senior Services Society serves several thousand New Westminster residents every year, according to CEO Alison Silgardo, and between 14,000 to 17,000 province-wide. The Covid19 pandemic has certainly greatly affected the seniors here and the organization itself, she says. The Society has had to shift quickly to meet the needs of the community.

The Society is non-profit and located in New Westminster. It serves the Lower Mainland and the province as a whole. It has 17 programs that serve between 14,000 and 17,000 seniors, ages 60 years plus, providing individualized support to seniors, including help with finding housing, providing temporary housing, food provision and a broad range of other services including form-filling, tax returns, light housekeeping, grocery shopping, transportation to medical appointments, meals on wheels and more. 

With isolating at home the order of the day during Covid19, particularly for seniors - the highly vulnerable group, new issues have come to the fore for them, says Silgardo. The Society has had to make a big pivot to deal with the new circumstances. 

Food security for seniors became a critical issue quickly, according to Silgardo. Before Covid19, their clientele had access to subsidized meals at community centres, which stretched their food budget, she explained. The Society, itself, provided three hot meals a week delivered to seniors, plus two dine-outs a week, where groups of seniors were taken out for meals. The weekly grocery bill for seniors was greatly reduced because of these interventions.

But with the shutdown, dine-outs became impossible. Their meal provider was unable to provide meals. But it was soon solved. The continuation of the service was made possible on the turn of a dime with the warm-hearted help of the community. Beedie stepped forward to pay for the meals for six weeks (6 meals per senior). They were prepared by Glowbal’s Chef Robert and they were delivered by Telus. In addition, the society managed to arrange to get food hampers from the local food bank to seniors. Other challenges with respect to food, is that many of the seniors can't order online, and food, itself, has been escalating in price.

Isolation also became more of an issue for seniors too. For some, it amounted to anxiety and depression. For a few, those who are disabled, problematic situations. She knows of several who got caught in bed or in a wheelchair for long periods of time when their caregivers didn't show up because of illness. Not having easy access to cell phones, they were unable to call for help. 

The Society started the 'friendly caller' program, phoning all of their registered seniors once a week and then, twice a week to say 'hello' and make sure that their seniors were okay. They also started sending cards to each of them. As Silgardo said, “Finding ways to bridge technology for seniors is really going to be important and just enhancing social connections or supports.” 

Another issue that has been made more visible, she says, is that many seniors don't have a safe place to shelter. “There are no designated shelters for seniors.” She says that a number of the current shelter operators in the Lower Mainland have expressed concern that seniors could be preyed on. “So having designated senior shelters would be an important step,” she says, thinking about the future.

To add to the challenges, the Society's staff of 11 people and volunteers numbering 100, was seriously reduced starting mid-March. Ninety-nine percent of the volunteers were seniors themselves and they were encouraged to stop their work because of the risk. Their staff was cut nearly in half because some needed to be home. Despite this, the organization rallied quickly, re-focused its efforts and with the help of a provincial plan, 'Safe Seniors, Strong Communities', and the United Way, they were able to quickly find new volunteers and match them with seniors.

Under the well-organized and empathetic leadership of Alison Silgardo, clients are dealt with on a personal basis; their staff meet them where each is 'at'. For example, one of their seniors landed in hospital and would be unable to return to his home, as it was no longer suitable for his circumstances. They met him at the hospital and took him to temporary housing, where they set him up.They will help find him suitable longterm housing. In another case, they are working with a concerned landlord dealing with a senior tenant, who is depressed and becoming a hoarder.

Seniors Services Society is an impressive, well-known organization, well-loved in the community. A major fund-raiser that they were to have in June, a well-researched symposium involving experts in many areas and seniors with lived experience, was to happen. It has been cancelled and will likely be mounted virtually, although the fund-raising piece may be problematic, according to Silgardo. They are looking forward to their fall dinner fund-raiser, put on by the Rotary Club in Queensborough – the Covid19 situation being better, hopefully. Also, she explains that they will need volunteers, as of June-July, as current volunteers will be going back to school and work.

Some final words from Silgardo: “My personal request to everybody: Everyone knows a senior, whether it's in New Westminster or anywhere...during this time particularly, make time for a senior, reach out, give them a call, send them a card, and if you don't know a senior and would like to help, please connect with us at Senior Services. There are so many things you could do to enhance service delivery for seniors in New Westminster.”

by:Susan Millar

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