A new Nanaimo program is building citizen champions to support seniors and help address social isolation. Stock photo

Nanaimo seniors get helping hand from ‘champions’

A new initiative will build a legion of champions to help address social isolation among seniors

Michelle Liberson, 28, noticed an older woman was having trouble getting up a hill, so she offered her arm to help.

“She was pleasantly surprised and I felt good good about helping her, as well,” said Liberson, one of 50 people trained as a champion in a new program that’s all about empowering the public to keep their eyes and ears out for seniors and reduce social isolation.

“It’s just kind of like connecting with an older person and feeling OK to … communicate and reach out and let them know I’m here to support you in any way, just even if it’s a little act of kindness.”

The Better Together Champion Program is just one project that has spun out of Seniors Connect, a three-year, federally funded program led by five different partner agencies that want to address social isolation among seniors. It’s building a new legion of champions with a free workshop that helps to inform about social isolation and the health issues tied to it, how to spot a community member at risk and who to call.

According to Lynne Henshaw, program coordinator, people can become socially isolated when they lose a driver’s licence or their partner, or when they become a caregiver. It means having fewer relationships than a person needs to feel connected – mutually satisfying relationships, where a senior can confide in someone; it’s about having help when needed, feeling valued and being able to participate in as much as someone wants to.

The task of champions is to keep their eyes and ears open for people in their neighbourhood, noticing for example if a neighbour no longer comes out, has drawn their blinds or when newspapers pile up. Henshaw said if they know the person they can knock on the door or bring over a pie. It can also be as simple as saying hello because some people go months without having a conversation and noticing patterns of behavior and giving people options, like the Vancouver Island Crisis Line, she said, adding a senior has the right not to seek help or assistance, but maybe they want it and don’t know it’s there.

“It’s kind of like the neighbourhood watch program,” said Henshaw, who explains it as empowering people to look out for others by giving them tools, resources and realizing it’s OK. Like the watch program, it isn’t about being in somebody’s business.

“It’s about the good of the overall community and using your eyes and your ears to decide and make some sound judgments to potentially help someone who could be in a bad place,” she said.

Irene Morrison, 70, took the Better Together program and said there was lots of talk about social isolation, which is key for her to help people get out of their homes and get more active.

“I’m getting up there now myself, so I know what the obstacles are to that,” said Morrison.

The next workshop is August 16, from 6:30-8 p.m. at Volunteer Nanaimo on Barons Road. For more information or to reserve a spot in the workshop, e-mail bettertogethernanaimo@gmail.com or call 250-760-0301.

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