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Seniors caring for other seniors are proving a potent weapon in the battle against COVID-19 on the Discovery Islands.

Volunteer-driven community groups that assist vulnerable seniors are adapting their services to continue helping their peers on Cortes and Quadra islands in British Columbia.

Vulnerable seniors may be most at risk of COVID-19, but measures to combat the virus pose immediate and widespread dangers such as isolation, loneliness, inactivity and lack of nutrition, the seniors groups say.

“Social contact is very important to prevent loneliness, which emotionally and physically can be very unhealthy,” said Carina Verhoeve, co-ordinator of the Seniors Helping Seniors (SHS) group on Cortes Island.

The group is part of the service umbrella of the Cortes Island Seniors Society (CISS), a volunteer organization in the community.

SHS volunteers typically provide social interaction, transportation and practical assistance to other Cortes seniors, so they can age in place on the island.

The group’s social activities, such as walks, lunches, exercise groups, writing circles and volunteer help with tasks, are suspended due to social distancing protocols, Verhoeve said.

But SHS is adapting services to meet seniors’ needs during the coronavirus crisis.

Though some drivers stepped back, being at higher risk if they contract the virus, younger residents on Cortes have volunteered to run tasks or bring groceries or medications to isolated seniors, Verhoeve said.

It’s key seniors keep mobile while self-isolating at home, Verhoeve stressed. “It’s very important to stay in motion and keep walking, stretching or dancing,” she said. “Do little exercises for your joints. Do anything.”

Losing some regular SHS volunteers to self-isolation shouldn’t deter seniors from asking for assistance, Verhoeve said.

“Cortes seniors are fiercely independent, and they want stay that way, but now is the time to reach out if you need help,” advises Carina Verhoeve, Seniors Helping Seniors co-ordinator, on the COVID-19 crisis.

“When people know each other, it can be easier accept their help,” she said. “Cortes seniors are fiercely independent, and they want stay that way, but now is the time to reach out if you need help.”

A senior can be paired up with an SHS volunteer for chats over the phone or to get groceries. They can also get referrals to other critical service providers or mental-health supports in the community, she said.

Verhoeve, with representatives from most other community groups on the island, has been attending the virtual Cortes COVID-19 response meetings, organized by the island’s regional director, Noba Anderson.

“That way, we’re all in touch and can help each other,” Verhoeve said.

Quadra Circle Community Connections Centre has also had to shift the types of services it provides to vulnerable seniors due to COVID-19 risks, board president Maureen McDowell said.

Group gatherings, activities and lunches organized by the Quadra Island senior-led volunteer organization have been curtailed, she said.

But other services are continuing or have started up to ensure isolated seniors get the support they need from their peers.

“We’re still providing volunteer drivers, but they’re driving prescriptions, meals and groceries instead of people,” McDowell said.

Quadra Circle board president Maureen McDowell, also involved with Quadra's seniors housing project, said the volunteer group is reaching out to provide a friendly voice and other services to isolated peers. Photo: Rochelle Baker

Quadra Circle’s office remains open Wednesday to Friday, with distancing protocols in place, to serve clients.

Seniors can continue to get meals delivered to make sure their nutrition doesn’t suffer while in isolation, McDowell said.

At the best of times, seniors, especially those living alone, can fall prey to the tea-and-toast syndrome, where they can’t be bothered to make something nutritious to eat, she said.

“Often, it can be a struggle for a single senior to cook something,” McDowell said. Some don’t have good cooking facilities at home, or they think, ‘It’s just me, why bother?’”

Quadra Circle is distributing around 50 meals a week, but that could increase under the circumstances, she added.

The meals are economical at $6 each, and for some people, it's enough food for two meals.

Some Quadra residents are also cooking and offering meals to seniors in isolation on the island’s caremongering Facebook site, McDowell noted.

Quadra Circle’s activity co-ordinator is also calling seniors at home to check in with them and provide a friendly voice to those who may not be online.

McDowell said a sense of isolation is a big risk for seniors who are self-isolating during the COVID-19 emergency.

“People aren’t going out for walks and meeting up with friends," she said.

“People on Quadra are used to being resilient during power outages, but this (emergency) has been going on for two weeks now.”

Quadra Circle volunteers are trying to help people stay connected and maintain some sort of structure to their day, she added.

“But we encourage them to find something to do to amuse themselves, so they don’t get inundated with information on the virus,” McDowell said. “It’s good to be informed, but too much raises the anxiety level.”

Seniors can reach out to Quadra Circle to help them resolve any issues that are cropping up, especially as their regular supports might be interrupted by COVID-19.

And there’s more than just help with referrals at the end of the line, McDowell noted.

“We can be a friendly voice for someone to listen to right now.”

To contact Seniors Helping Seniors call Carina Verhoeve at 250-935-6793 or email CISS at [email protected]

To reach Quadra Circle Office call 250-285-2255 or visit https://quadracircle.ca/