Community organizations help to engage seniors on important issues

Click here to read “Elder service corps programs help bridge the age gap and engage seniors” by Ellis Chloe – The Calgary Herald, June 27, 2015

Sex and seniors are two words that aren’t often spoken together.

But Joan Poulin and Dianne Norris are trying to change that by setting up sexual health education workshops for older adults considering the fact that seniors have one of the highest rates of STDs in North America.

“People my age never had sex education in school and our parents never talked about it,” says Poulin. “We don’t know much about the use of condoms and the dangers of STDs so we’re educating ourselves and trying to educate others. . . . We facilitate discussions about LGBT (lesbian gay bisexual transgender) too.”

Poulin, a former nun, teacher and tour guide and Norris, a retired career counsellor, are members of Elder Service Corps. Created by Carya, formerly Calgary Family Services, it’s a program designed to engage and cultivate community leaders out of retired seniors who want more out of life than the “three Gs” — grandparenting, golfing and gardening.

“Seniors don’t see themselves as important,” says Norris. “We place more value on wage earners. Unless you get out there, you let yourself become marginalized. This program gives a sense of self worth and confidence. I like the fact that you are helping people.”

The program is the first of its kind in Canada and has caught the attention of several other cities that are interested in copying it. It’s the brainchild of Roman Katsnelson, director of community development strategy at Carya.

“We are committed to help shift the conversation about aging,” says Katsnelson. “We think it’s critical for the health of our communities to recognize the tremendous resource that older adults are. It’s our loss if we neglect them.”

Launched in 2012, the program pays and trains qualified applicants for a nine-month period on the topics of aging, social justice and community development. This is alongside a practicum involving a community project such as the seniors’ sex-ed workshop, which received the helpful expertise of the Calgary Sexual Health Centre.

Katsnelson says Carya works with a thousand seniors every year who repeatedly say they want to continue to be relevant to a thriving community. Meanwhile, community organizations are struggling to engage older adults because seniors aren’t interested in what is being offered.

“We have a role in drawing a connection between isolated elders and communities who desperately need them,” says Katsnelson. “Elder Service Corps provides the social infrastructure to do that. It’s a means to bridge different groups in the community.”

Lois Faris of Life Transitions Associates, a career counselling company, has referred a number of people to the program.

“There are so many programs that do things for the elderly,” says Faris. “But this is the first one I’ve heard of where elders are equipped to focus on helping others.”

Mohi Bakinson enlisted in the program as a way of giving back to the community. He is a retired physician from Nigeria who was elected as the first president of the Elder Service Corps Association, an alumni group that was formed by the program’s graduates.

“With any society, when you bring elders out, they can pass on their expertise and wealth of experience to other generations,” says Bakinson. “We need something like this to connect the younger and the older generation. We shouldn’t say, ‘Oh, these are old people. We don’t need them anymore.’ You need everybody because the past, present and future form a mighty whole.”

Bridging the generation gap and giving back to Canada has been almost a personal mission of Aziza Hakda since she arrived in Canada in 1971 as a refugee from Uganda.

“Elder Service Corps has been a big encouragement,” says Hakda. “They’re equipping us to become community developers.  To me, that means going out and bringing the community together.”

As one of the first grads of the Elder Service Corps program, her first project had her partnered with Youth Link Calgary to help connect high school students with an isolated seniors’ home in northeast Calgary. The students interviewed the seniors and wrote their memoirs.

“It was very touching,” says Hakda.  “The youth were amazing. Every senior has a story to tell and every senior wants to be with younger people.”

She didn’t stop there. Hakda then set up a successful community coffee group for seniors in Bridgeland where there is a high seniors population.

She then went on to convince Genesis Centre, a sports facility in her own community, to open its indoor soccer fields to seniors every weekday morning for a free walk.

“The fields are empty that time of day, so why not use it?” says Hakda. “About 200 come out every day now.  All shapes, all sizes, all colours, we are all there. I didn’t do it by myself. I’m just a cog in the wheel. We just put the bug in management’s ear and they were very, very co-operative.”

Luanne Whitmarsh, CEO of the Kerby Centre, believes the Elder Service Corps provides an essential service.

“Society as a whole benefits from this type of program,” says Whitmarsh. “It is imperative that older adults are engaged, transfer skills and knowledge onto next generations and continue to participate in their communities.”

It has been life changing and a journey of self-discovery for retired nurse Lily Woo who just graduated from the program last month.

“I thought it’d be dull and boring but it’s transformed my life actually,” says Woo. “I’ve rediscovered my passion for social justice — protecting and advocating for the vulnerable.”

She and fellow recent graduate, Cheryl McLean set up a weekly arts workshop at King Tower, the affordable seniors housing in East Village. A King Tower resident herself, McLean felt the seniors in her building were disconnected and isolated and she wanted to change that.

“We thought of doing an arts group to try to get people out of their apartments,” says Woo.

It worked.

It turned out that there were artists and writers already in residence.

“It’s an amazing group,” says Woo. “We did water colours one week, collage another, poetry the next…. What it accomplished was that it got a core group of people committed.”

Including McLean.

“There are people here who have friendships who didn’t have them before,” says McLean, a retired social worker and entrepreneur. “We’re changing the image of King Tower in East Village and I want to keep it going.”

So far, 54 Calgarians have graduated from the Elder Service Corps program and more are being sought out for recruitment. The minimum age requirement is 65 with a few exceptions. Diversity is a key criterion as they want to reach as many seniors as possible.

“We want a diverse group of experience from all ethnic, social, economic backgrounds as well as different genders and sexual orientation,” explains Katsnelson. “We want people with white collar and blue collar jobs, people who have experienced homelessness or people who are wealthy.”

The program offers three staggered intakes that begin in June, September and March.

“I believe our solutions to deep-seated problems come from communities themselves,” says Katsnelson. “We invite seniors to become community heroes to help solve these problems. Everyday is an invitation to the heroic.”

For more information or to apply for the program, call 403-205-5271.