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Local program brings sense of community right to the living rooms of seniors

Since the pandemic began, Seniors Without Walls has been providing local seniors with phone-based programming, allowing them to build friendships, play games, and learn new things all from the comfort of their homes
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In a time of cancelled events, closed doors and social isolation, one local program is bringing community to older adults in the safety and comfort of their own homes. 

Seniors Without Walls (WOW) originated in Ottawa several years ago, and has since been adopted by other cities around Ontario, including Waterloo, Cambridge and Kitchener. 

Melissa Malo, who leads the program in Waterloo, said the city adopted the idea nearly two years ago as a response to the isolation seniors were experiencing due to the pandemic.

“I feel like people really need this program. I think of all the seniors that are just on their own every single day, day in day out, they're afraid to leave their houses for fear of getting COVID, and sometimes they don't have a lot of family to check in with them. And even if they do, it's nice for them to have their own friends, their own little communities,” she said. 

The program is free and entirely over the phone, which makes it more accessible for people without computers or internet access. Malo said their goal was to eliminate any barriers, financial or otherwise, so that anyone could join. 

It’s essentially a conference call that Malo runs through her computer, so she can see how many people join in. 

“But for them, they just answer their phone,” she said. 

“There could be 10 people on a call, there could be 20 people. It depends on the day. But the program has developed into a nice little community, because you get to know the people who are on your call every week.”

In terms of the type of programming, Malo says they do “everything under the sun.” 

Every Wednesday, she runs three programs, each about half an hour in length. The first starts at 10:00 a.m. and is mostly geared towards discussion. Malo will usually choose a topic to get conversation going, which could be anything from New Year’s resolutions to Martin Luther King to coffee. 

The next call starts at 11:30, and is typically a game of some sort, such as trivia. 

At 1:30 they bring in guest speakers, from nutrition experts to musical guests. Occasionally she will bring in a local nurse or firefighter to share what their typical day looks like. Sometimes they also do guided gentle exercise or meditation. 

“It's all over the phone, like I said, so even when we do a musical event, he'll just perform so they can relax on their sofa in their living room and listen to half an hour of good music.”

In the past nine months, they have run 129 programs through WOW, with a total attendance of 875 people. There are about 38 community members who regularly attend each program. 

The program has been a hit with the seniors in the community. 

One regular attendee, Phylis MacNeil said it’s a great way to “help seniors stay connected -- especially during this time when most of us are kind of locked down. It keeps us from being lonely.”

Another regular, Shirley McHug agreed, saying that she looks forward to it every Wednesday. 

“The program has a variety of subjects of interest, no matter what your age. A great deal of thought goes into what is presented … Topics are fun and challenging, [and] the guest speakers talk about subjects that are really interesting and relevant to us.”

Malo says they try to keep it upbeat, not focusing on things like the pandemic -- but they do keep it real with each other, too. 

“I think that everyone would say that they feel like they know each other; they talk about life, how they're doing, and everyone's really supportive of each other. It's become a real community; friendships have developed without anyone meeting each other face to face. Even for myself, I have never met these people in person, and yet I feel like I know them very well -- we talk every single week.” 

When they sign up, Malo says they make notes of any important background information, for instance, if they are blind or hard of hearing, so they can help them accordingly. 

Once they are registered, Malo sends out a calendar every month by email or mail, depending on their preference, detailing the events in the month ahead, highlighting who the guest speakers will be. 

There is also no pressure to commit. 

“If a person is not feeling well that day, or they’re tired, they don’t have to answer the phone, or they can answer and just say they’ll pass for that day. It’s very easygoing,” she said. 

The program runs every week, year round. 

Currently they are relying on government grants for their financial support, and are committed until the summer, but Malo says they hope the program will be able to renew funding so it can continue. 

Those interested can find out more or register here or by calling Malo at 519-579-1020 ext. 10037.

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