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Seniors Service Award recipients innovate during challenging year

Award recipients focus on helping seniors stay connected to family and community

Dr. Haidong Liang, executive director of Westend Seniors Activity Centre in Edmonton, knows being cut off from family and friends is the number one mental health issue affecting Canadian seniors.

“Before the pandemic, one in four seniors were at risk of social isolation,” he said. “During the pandemic, almost every senior was at risk.”

But with a program of video meet-ups and online classes he launched in March 2020, that impact was greatly diminished. It’s just one reason why Liang received a Minister’s Seniors Services Award for 2021.

Within a few days of senior's centres being shut down in 2020, Liang and his team had launched a virtual at-home fitness program and created over 2,000 handbooks for those with no online access.

“It was based on one of the projects I did in 2014/15 with Covenant Health,” Liang said. “We made sixteen videos and started posting on the website, e-newsletter and email, and social media.”

The Minister’s Seniors Service Awards recognize individuals, businesses and non-profit organizations that go above and beyond to improve the lives of seniors and their communities.

Liang, who has degrees in gerontology and physical activity, demonstrated the techniques in the videos. His team also called on their volunteers to reach out to isolated seniors with friendly phone chats. By December 2020, they’d made almost 900 calls.

Training seniors in using digital technology had one of the biggest impacts, with over 800 seniors learning how to use a tablet. Since going online in April 2020, the centre has added one-on-one training on how to use Zoom® software.

“A lot of seniors were stuck at home. Their children would give them a tablet, and they wanted to connect but didn’t know how to use it,” said Liang. "The most important thing is social connection. People want to chat, to ask how each other are doing. This is an opportunity to help seniors maintain that healthy level of socialization.”

Meagan Chapman, then acting recreation manager at St. Michael's Long-Term Care in Edmonton, received the Special Service Award for 2021. A category of the Minister's Service Awards, it recognizes service to isolated seniors during the pandemic.

“From the very start, we implemented a virtual visit program where recreation staff did at least weekly video or phone calls with residents and family members,” said Chapman of facilitating a host of opportunities for safe, one-on-one interactions. She organized outdoor visits, designating garden and patio spaces as guidelines allowed, and brought in performers to play for residents as they watched through the window. And, in partnership with Father Leo Green School, students made window visits and even become pen pals with residents.

“Students did dances, held up posters with inspiring notes and showed them books," said Chapman of the highly-anticipated visits. "Seeing children brought light and joy to their days. It was so sweet watching residents dance and wave and share smiles with the children.”

Connections were in the forefront for Linking Generations Society in Sherwood Park, which received an award in the non-profit category.

Linking Generations matches seniors in Strathcona County with students in junior and senior high to share life experiences and build friendships. Since its beginning in 2004, starting with one school and one senior's facility, the program has blossomed to nine schools and several facilities.

When the pandemic shut down face-to-face visits, executive director Debbie Sinclair worked with her team to make programming virtual. With funding from United Way and New Horizons for Seniors relief program, Linking Generations bought iPads and headsets so participating seniors could stay connected with their families.

Sinclair and her team had started the Volunteer Grandparent program just before COVID-19 hit, so that program went online too.

“We had lost opportunities for our seniors to volunteer,” said Sinclair, "but it’s now in six elementary schools. We match a senior with a teacher and they go into the classroom once a month and share stories.”

“Our mission has always been to allow seniors to connect, and we’re still doing that. We’re so honoured to be recognized,” she said of the award.

A virtual event recognizing all award recipients was held in late October.

 

Minister’s Seniors Services Award for 2021

Individual 

· Benita Galandy, Grande Prairie

· Cory Young, Peace River

· Dr. Haidong Liang, Edmonton

Business

· Aspen Care Ltd., Calgary

Organization 

· Jewish Family Service Calgary, Calgary

· Linking Generations Society of Alberta, Sherwood Park

· Volunteer Strathcona, Sherwood Park

Alice Modin Award

· Dirk Bannister, Airdrie

Special Service Category

· Meagan Chapman, Parkland County