May 17th, 2024

Local seniors program expanding across AB.

By Dale Woodard on November 26, 2021.

A local program keeping in touch with seniors feeling isolated in a time of pandemic has now expanded province wide.
The Volunteer Lethbridge Keep in Touch program connects people in the community with each other through a weekly telephone support system linking seniors to someone with whom to chat and access resource information they may need.
“Based on the needs of seniors the program has grown far beyond that,” said Connie-Marie Riedlhuber, the Keep in Touch Senior Coordinator with Volunteer Lethbridge and the guest speaker at the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs weekly online session Thursday afternoon. “We really offer emotional supports to seniors to decrease their isolation and loneliness and also help them find resources to improve their lives.
“For seniors, loneliness and isolation are not just a COVID issue. It’s something we really believe belongs for the longer term.”
There are five community support programs the program falls under, said Riedlhuber, basic needs, help for seniors, capacity for community services, mental health support and support for volunteers.
“If I were to use three words to describe the success of the program, I believe it’s volunteerism, collaboration and low costs.”
Now, the program has expanded to five rural areas around Alberta and was part of the topic of conversation at Thursday’s SACPA session.
“It’s not something Volunteer Lethbridge sees itself as owning,” said Riedlhuber. “We received funding for expansion to rural Alberta. We did a pilot this year with five communities, getting them on board to deliver a Keep In Touch Program. What was required of those communities is they signed a memorandum of understanding made to two main commitments on their side. We wanted them to use the Keep In Touch brand and the name and we needed their reporting information as far as how many volunteers, seniors and parents they’ve made, very basic information for us to continue to get funding.”
The Keep In Touch program has now branched out from the south to the north in Barons-Eureka-Warner FCSS, Strathmore FCSS, Neighbourhood Link Parkland Spruce Grove, Westlock FCSS and Grande Prairie FCSS.
“Everything was developed for them, so we took the whole program we developed, especially over the first year, and we were able to give them a tool box where they were able to have the registration forms, the volunteer processes, social media and marketing posts and information they could use that they needed,” said Riedlhuber. “So the Keep In Touch movement has expanded to these five areas.
The Neighbourhood Link is an interesting one, said Riedlhuber. 
“It’s a non-profit organization that was formed and it’s actually 20 churches that contribute in their communities to taking care of seniors. They not only do a caller program, they do in-home support.”
The reason for the Keep In Touch program growth is through core funding by Alberta Mental Health and Addiction to do this expansion, said Riedlhuber.
“We also have funding for one position from Family and Community Support Services. The collaboration was so important to our organization. We formed a partnership with Volunteer Lethbridge, the rural development network and Canadian Mental Health. They’re large groups that were able to bring the program together in a very short amount of time.”
Riedlhuber added the Keep In Touch program is currently seeking funding and donations for the program for continuation because their funding ends in February 2022.
The world has changed since the pandemic and will not be the same again, especially for seniors, said Riedlhuber.
“I think they’ve been dealing with this for a long time, but the last couple of years for them has really made some dramatic changes.”
Riedlhuber noted in the fourth wave of the pandemic, people are starting to get out and see more of their families and are going out with small groups of friends or dining at a restaurant, for example.
“But the seniors who are in our caseload are not doing that yet,” she said. “The fourth wave has actually increased their depression and anxiety. So unfortunately, mental health issues have increased. This is the hardest time for them. So the calls I do with seniors on a daily basis over the last few years, the last couple of months have definitely been the most difficult and the complexity and the uncertainty that goes along with their life has actually increased their difficulty. We’ve all moved to an online world and those who haven’t are really being left in the dark.”
Riedlhuber said some people caring for a senior parent or a senior loved one are finding it hard to keep up.
“We have so many of our participants who don’t have friends or family that can help them do those things and they’re really struggling. Many can’t get groceries or do their banking without support. Transportation is one of the number one issues and with winter coming, that’s just on the increase, for sure.
“Overall, the seniors are indicating they’re feeling more depressed. They mention anxiety, (not feeling) important and unloved.”
Having attended a recent presentation, Riedlhuber said as senior’s needs become greater, their participation actually decreases.
“This is a provincial trend across the province and they’re looking at mental health issues and how dramatic they actually could be,” she said. “Many of our participants are living alone, so their social network is shrinking. Family support is less as families become overwhelmed, themselves, with COVID. Those who own businesses, for example, there is just so much they have to do that they offer less support.”
Riedlhuber said they’ve found seniors are reluctant to tell the truth to their family members when they’re struggling, especially when they’re older and at home alone, adding basic needs like food and finances are key issues.
“They don’t want to move out of their home. They’re not going to share with their family anything that’s going to have the family talking to them about moving.”
That’s where volunteers break the silence by staying in touch, said Riedlhuber.
“They help to normalize experiences by acknowledging the seniors’ stress and how hard it is to navigate the world right now. We all know even being at home and working all the time and being home all the time, if something goes wrong it seems so much bigger, right? For them (seniors) that’s what actually feeds their depression and anxiety, the loneliness.”
Riedlhuber said the volunteers take the time to ask the seniors about the best parts of their lives and to help them feel valuable and important, adding the topic of the seniors career is a popular one along with their family and children.
“When I do an intake, if they’re not very chatty, it’s always wonderful to ask them about their career and what they did in their life to get them talking,” she said. “So through the sharing we listen to their stories of loss and try to support them as they share that story. But they also get to brag and give us advice. Some of our younger volunteers have indicated there’s just as much benefit for them in actually talking to the seniors.”
Since April 2020 to September of this year, the Keep in Touch program has logged 1,787 volunteer calling engagement hours, 169 pairings, 85 volunteers and 112 participants since the beginning of the program, 375 well-being screeners and over 50 monthly volunteer and senior follow ups.
Those interested in volunteering can contact Karen Sparkes at or by calling 587-220-1726.

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