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Helping seniors find new horizons

Do you have an idea for a project that engages seniors and strengthens your community?

Apr 01, 2015, By: Kate Jaimet

The Seniors Series: Part 2

Skier going through snow on a sunny day.

Isobel Nemitz was nearly 70 years old when she decided to take up cross-country skiing.

After a serious health challenge in her 50s, Nemitz got back into her former active lifestyle by joining an exercise program in a local fitness class. More recently she started looking for a way to become even more active but was nervous about injuring herself in a new sport. Then, some friends in her fitness class told her about a cross-country ski program at the Caledonia Nordic Ski Club near her home in Prince George, B.C. Soon afterward, they all made a pact to sign up together.

“It’s funny the things you worry about, like how do you put the skis on? Is there a left and a right? Which way do they have to point? But it was all so much fun because we were all in it together,” Nemitz says. “After the lessons, my family gave me a gift certificate to carry on with skiing. They said, ‘Keep at it!’ and I intend to. The fitness classes and the skiing have given me a whole new lease on life.”

The ski class Nemitz joined was part of the club’s Active for Life series, funded by a grant from the federal government’s New Horizons for Seniors (NHS) Program.

Since 2004, NHS has funded more than 12,200 projects under two broad categories:

  • community-based projects that last for one year and can receive up to $25,000
  • pan-Canadian projects that last up to three years and have received up to $250,000 per year.

The program is currently funded at $50 million annually, through Employment and Social Development Canada, after receiving an additional $5 million in the 2014 federal budget.

A call for proposals for community-based projects is expected in spring 2015. To be eligible for funding, projects must meet one of the program’s five objectives:

  • promoting volunteerism among seniors and other generations
  • engaging seniors in the community through the mentoring of others
  • expanding awareness of elder abuse, including financial abuse
  • supporting the social participation and inclusion of seniors
  • providing capital assistance for projects and/or programs for seniors.

Over the past four years, pan-Canadian projects have focused on elder abuse, and two important initiatives in this area were led by registered nurses. From 2010 to 2012, CNA and the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO) collaborated on a program to train staff at long-term care facilities in promoting elder abuse awareness. Ten facilities across the country were chosen as PEACE (Promoting Elder Abuse Awareness Centres of Excellence) sites, and more than 900 staff members learned about elder abuse through a five-module curriculum. After that project ended in 2012, RNAO received funding to develop educational resources and a best practice guideline for preventing and addressing the abuse and neglect of older adults. The guideline was published in the fall of 2014.

With elder abuse awareness projects now wrapping up, pan-Canadian projects will begin addressing the issue of social isolation. In a speech made in February, Alice Wong, Minister of State for Seniors, said social isolation comes up frequently in her discussions with older Canadians.

“Whereas in generations past, the elderly would live together with their adult children, and enjoy their fellowship each day, this is no longer our culture….a growing number of seniors live alone, cut off from their neighbours….The fact is that the social isolation of Canada’s seniors is nothing less than a tragedy, with real consequences for our society, young and old alike,” she said.

The new focus coincides with the release of the 2014 National Seniors Council report on the social isolation of seniors. The report states, based on data from Statistics Canada, that 19 per cent of individuals 65 or over felt a lack of companionship or felt left out or isolated from others. Through consultations and an extensive literature review, the council concluded that the social isolation of seniors can cause communities to lose an “unquantifiable wealth of experience that older adults bring to our families, neighbourhoods and communities.” Apart from these social costs, the lack of contact can lead to problems for the individuals themselves, such as reduced social skills, poor nutrition, increased alcohol consumption and depression.

As part of the consultation process, the council used an online questionnaire to help determine the risk factors most likely to lead to social isolation. Based on the experience of 179 respondents, including seniors and those who work with them, several key risk factors were identified, such as poverty, lack of close friends and relatives, lack of community services and transportation, poor health, poor literacy skills and difficulty accessing or using computer technology.

Linda Wang, community connections coordinator at the Peel Multicultural Council in Mississauga, Ont., sees many of these problems among immigrant seniors who often arrive in Canada late in life. “They’ve spent most of their life overseas. Their children are working, they’re very busy, and their grandchildren speak English, so of course they are very lonely,” she says.

Her organization recently received a community-based project grant of $24,000 to teach seniors how to use communications technology, from e-mail and social media sites like Facebook to mobile apps like WeChat. “Some seniors,” Wang says, “film class activities — including field trips to museums and conservation areas — and upload them to YouTube for sharing with the community.”

In 2014, the NHS program approved 24 larger pilot projects addressing social isolation. The list of projects has not been released, but each project received a maximum of $100,000 in federal dollars over two years. Funding was contingent on the organization finding matching funds from another source. According to Minister Wong, these partnerships often enhance the impact these projects can have due to the additional experience and ideas the partner organizations bring.

Earl Maynard, director of communications for Minister Wong, says a call for pan-Canadian proposals for projects on social isolation is expected in spring 2015. “The department is finalizing the specific details for how this is going to work, which will also be released at that time. We’re trying to build on the National Seniors Council report and on these pilot projects to create as big an impact as we can.”

Healthy aging needs special recognition in program: CNA

CNA believes that health and fitness should be given more explicit emphasis in the New Horizons program. That’s why, since last fall, CNA has been lobbying politicians to add a sixth objective to NHS: supporting healthy and active aging.

Responding to questions from Canadian Nurse, Minister Wong, NDP seniors critic Irene Mathyssen and Liberal seniors critic John McCallum all praised the program in general. “Absolutely. We see the results of excellent projects across the country,” Wong wrote in an e-mail.

The NDP and Liberals support CNA’s specific request for a sixth NHS objective, and CNA will continue to work with the Conservative party to gain support for this proposal.

Knowledge, skills and experience shared in NHS community-based projects

Exercise program gets boost with new DVD. If you hear the sound of Bill Haley and His Comets rockin’ around the clock in a church basement in Ontario’s City of Kawartha Lakes district, chances are you’ve stumbled on a session of SAGES — Sage Advice and Gentle Exercises for Seniors, a program designed to improve strength and balance. If you peek inside the room, you’ll see a group of senior citizens marching along to a new exercise video on DVD produced by Community Care City of Kawartha Lakes and funded by NHS.

Long-time SAGES volunteer Judie Schell, 74, who appears in the video, along with two other volunteers and a trained fitness instructor, says the DVD is a much-needed update to the original VHS they’d been using for 10 years.

Armed with the new DVD, volunteers fan out across the scattered communities of this rural region to lead weekly fitness classes in churches, community centres — even hockey arenas — at a fraction of the cost of hiring exercise instructors.

“People ask, ‘Why has this program survived so long?’ It survives because it works,” Schell says. “People in rural areas don’t have a lot of money. If you offer a 10-week fitness class for a small donation, they will participate.”

Taking centre stage for hoedown. The ghost of Hank Williams would have felt right at home in Carbonear, N.L., last June when 50 performers ranging in age from four to 83 donned cowboy hats and rhinestones and belted out country tunes at the Good Old Carbonear Opry show.

Funded by NHS, the show was the brainchild of Florence Button, 66, who describes herself as “a freelance semi-retired person who’s not sensible enough to go home and enjoy retirement.”

“The older folk sometimes look at kids as being irresponsible and almost scary, and kids probably look at the rest of us as old fogeys who don’t know which end is up,” Button says. “I felt there was something we could do that might bridge that gap a little bit.”

Judging by the response, her plan succeeded — with a sold-out house and enthusiastic participation by children, high schoolers and senior citizens alike.

“What impressed me was that so many teenagers took part in this old-time music,” says 83-year-old Heber McGurk, who performed songs by country music Hall-of-Famer Little Jimmy Dickens. “I thought it was beautiful.”

Cultural workshops bridge generation gap. In the Arctic hamlet of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, most Inuit elders don’t speak the same language as their children and grandchildren. While many people over 50 are unilingual in Inuinnaqtun, a language related to Inuktitut, most young people only speak English — a legacy of the residential school system.

The Kitikmeot Heritage Society seeks to bridge that gap through cultural workshops that bring these generations together. Many of the workshops — including mentorship by elders and the use of traditional skills — have been funded by NHS. The most recent project focused on harpoon making and seal hunting.

“A lot of learning up here is very experiential; it’s not classroom learning,” says executive director Brendan Griebel. “It’s about bringing people together around a skill, something physical that people can watch and do and learn and replicate. Especially when there aren’t common language skills, engaging each other through something material is very important.”

During the two-week workshop, elders taught younger adults and children how to make harpoons. Then, they went out on the land together to hunt for seals. Sharing a skill became a way of healing a cultural rift.

“The social outcomes of intergenerational projects far too often go unrecognized,” says Griebel. “We need to start looking at these cultural and language-focused programs as direct contributors to mental and physical well-being, not only among participants but also wider circles of society. A community that works together, learns from one another and celebrates their ancestry is generally, in my opinion, a healthy community.”

Volunteers restore vintage Air Force plane. The F-86 Sabre fighter jet on display outside the National Air Force Museum of Canada in Trenton, Ont., had once been a sharp-looking airplane, with swept-back wings, metallic golden body and a stylized red-and-white eagle head painted on the side. Yet years of exposure and neglect had left the aircraft dented and rusted, hardly living up to its high-performance pedigree.

All that changed, thanks to an NHS grant — and eight months of work by volunteers in the museum’s restoration department. “Our restoration department is entirely made up of seniors,” says museum curator Kevin Windsor. “Some of them come in because they used to fix planes and they still want to do it. Some come in because their friends drag them in. It’s a cool place for them to come to and keep passing on their skills.”

Between July 2014 and February 2015, the volunteers restored the dents and scratches, and even replaced some parts of the aluminum frame. Canadian Forces personnel then added new paint to prepare the plane for return to its display outside the museum’s grounds at CFB Trenton this summer.

Kate Jaimet is a freelance writer in Ottawa, Ont.