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Carman seniors use storytelling to connect despite COVID

Many seniors’ programs in rural communities have had to close while others have modified, leaving seniors with fewer options for socializing

COVID-19 isn’t Olive Foote’s first brush with a national crisis. She lived through the Great Depression.

“It wasn’t my responsibility when I was eight or nine years old, but I was old enough to join my parents in their concern,” wrote Foote, who lives at Heritage Manor in Elm Creek. “We always made do with what we had.”

“We made soup from a bone. There was a joke about ‘stone soup.’ You boiled a nice medium-size stone in a big pot, add onion and pearl barley until nice and tender. It is very nourishing, we would say.

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“We shared what we had with the poor, jobless and hungry fellows who were looking for work and were arriving in the boxcars. Life went on, and we met the challenge.”

She concludes, “We will not be the same after this pandemic is over but we will learn and we will be better people.”

Foote’s story is one of many that Carman and Elm Creek seniors wrote and circulated in newsletters among area independent living residences. They’ve served to connect seniors who’ve lost many ways of socializing because of COVID-19.

The project began in late spring when the Carman and Community Seniors’ Resource Council received a grant of about $3,000 to put toward alleviating seniors’ isolation caused by the pandemic.

“I tried to think, what are we needing at this point?” said Nancy McFarlane, the senior resource co-ordinator. “They’re obviously missing the social, I mean they’re very isolated. They need to have something to do, and something to look forward to.”

She and her team began with care packages. Each contained a mask sewn by local women, home baking, a package of activities like crosswords and word searches, and a letter. In the letter, Nancy asked seniors to write short stories on a specified topic.

She took the stories and formed them into the newsletter in which she announced the next topic. She’s published four newsletters so far.

On the topic of a favourite teacher or school memory, Margaret Dracas of Carman recalled going to school in Sperling.

“We went to school in horse-drawn vans which were heated in the winter,” she wrote. “All our school supplies were provided with tax payers’ money so every student was treated the same.”

Her favourite teacher was Miss Ruth Fallis, Dracas wrote. “She was always nicely dressed in suits, skirts, etc. and high heels. She expected all students to work hard and do neat work.”

Dracas and Miss Fallis would meet again at a Sperling School Reunion in 1987 and the teacher remembered her, said Dracas.

The newsletters created a kind of contact system between facilities, said McFarlane. It allowed seniors to hear from each other — sometimes from people they hadn’t seen in ages.

She’s got lots of feedback through phone calls from seniors — sometimes asking if the next newsletter was almost ready, McFarlane said.

One woman told her she’d read the newsletter through and set it aside. That night she couldn’t sleep so she read it all through again because she’d enjoyed it so much.

The grant has since run out, but they’re trying to find money from other portions of the budget to keep the project going, said McFarlane.

“It’s obviously really important to these folks. It’s kind of a lifeline,” she said.

Carman-area SSGL (support to seniors in group living) workers have been very restricted in the activities and social supports they can provide, said McFarlane. They’ve stopped baking and craft programs where people are touching and sharing objects.

The two congregate meal programs for seniors in the area have continued throughout the pandemic, but seniors are no longer invited to eat together. It’s strictly takeout or delivered.

More people are participating in the congregate meal program, McFarlane said. She said she thought it was because fewer people were comfortable going to restaurants. The program allowed them to have meals brought to their door.

The resource council resorted to doing what it can, like one-on-one socializing, going for walks or visiting in a common area where people can distance. It has a coffee program where everyone brings their own cup.

Distancing can be difficult for seniors who are hard of hearing, but, “It’s even good just for them to see someone else,” McFarlane said.

These difficulties appear to be common across the province. In Glenboro, Seniors Independent Services still provides essential resources like housing, transportation and an equipment loan program, but social programs have been shut down since April, said co-ordinator Wendy Yarish.

Yarish has been calling 15 seniors per month to visit, she said.

“Everything kind of slowed right down,” said Melanie Parent, who co-ordinates Services to Seniors in the RM of Piney.

Two congregate meal programs shut down because they were hosted from community halls which were closed. The communities of Sprague and Piney continued in a “meals on wheels” format.

Parent said they hope to resume congregate meal programs in October, but they’ll be more restricted.

For some seniors the program provided additional food security, but many saw it as a chance to visit with neighbours, said Parent.

“The main component, I want to say, of the congregate meal program is the socialization aspect,” she said. “It’s the visiting and having coffee and this, but now it’s going to change.”

There will be room for nine seniors instead of 15 or 20, and people will sit farther apart. “It’s basically an eat and go,” said Parent.

An adult day program for older seniors resumed in June. Revamping activities for COVID safety has been challenging, but program regulars haven’t missed a day and are enjoying it, she said.

Bingo also resumed in late August. Parent said there was a lot of pressure from seniors to restart.

“I think because people were looking for outings,” Parent said. The biweekly event was a night out for many seniors, she said.

“They have a pop and a bag of chips, and they spend whatever on bingo… and they would visit.”

Bingo players have to register a week in advance and wear a mask until they’re in their seat, Parent added.

About the author

Reporter

Geralyn Wichers

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.

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