Canadian seniors are learning to find joy in a world of fear

Despite the increased stresses of the pandemic, these elderly Canadians are committed to finding positivity.

Brian and Anne Bradford, a retired couple who live in Waterloo, Ont., have been married for 56 years. Anne calls Brian her honey, and for their date nights, they go to the Tim Hortons drive-thru, order some food and drinks, and sit in their car in the parking lot, eating and chatting.

Like any other Canadian household, the Bradfords had to make adjustments when COVID-19 struck. However, their lives changed before the pandemic even began. In Sept. 2019, Anne was diagnosed with cancer, and although treatment was risky for someone her age, she decided to go against the odds and fight.

Although both are now in their 80s, the couple’s marriage is based on good communication skills and enjoying one another’s presence.

“He’s my best friend as well as my sweetheart,” Anne said in an interview with The Pigeon.

In Sept. 2020 she underwent an operation for her cancer, followed by radiation and chemotherapy.

Because cancer patients are immunocompromised, Anne and Brian were already familiar with avoiding gatherings and staying at home. When the pandemic began, their bubble had to tighten even more.

The Bradfords are at a bigger health risk of getting COVID-19 than anyone else. Both of them have underlying health conditions and are in the most vulnerable age group, meaning contracting the virus also has a higher likelihood of being deadly.

The pandemic has taken the lives of a little over 19,000 people in Canada, of which more than half are seniors over the age of 85.

Besides the fear and anxiety that the risk of getting the virus has brought upon the elderly, the uncertainty of it has kept many in distress and feeling alone.

Studies have shown that social isolation during COVID-19 negatively affects elderly people’s mental health. There’s an increase in anxiety and depression due to the isolation faced by elderly, especially those who have little to no contact with anyone.

For the Bradfords, the worry of the potential health risks and social isolation was easier than for most others.

Brian said they felt mentally prepared for the first lockdown in March because Anne’s cancer diagnosis and treatment had already taught them about proper social distancing.

During Anne’s radiation treatments, which took place in early lockdown, Brian wasn’t allowed to accompany her to the hospital, and had to adjust to only dropping her off and picking her up.

“We both have very positive attitudes about whatever happens in life […] and we said, ‘Okay, we’ll just deal with it,’ so he dropped me at the hospital, I went in, had the radiation, came out twenty minutes later, [and] he took me home,” she said. “Every morning [was] the same for five weeks, and we had a good attitude about it.”

Brian often filled in the time between waiting by grabbing a coffee and something to eat by himself.

Even though the pandemic was hard-hitting for a lot of seniors, Brian and Anne said their attitude helped them stay happy and adaptable. Their personal solution to the loneliness caused by isolation was contentment and a positive attitude, which they attribute to their Christian faith.

Their hobbies also kept them busy during the months when they were away from everyone. Brian has a stamp collection which he spends most of the day working on, while Anne’s pastime is reading books and sending encouraging emails to her friends.

“I think for Anne and I, there’s always something we want to do during that day, and if there is a part of the day you question, well you go to your hobby,” he said.

Besides their hobbies, they also spend time learning as much technology as they can so that they can keep up with it.

“We don’t give up on our digital devices, and we keep trying to learn them, and we say, ‘oh we’re slow, you have to tell [us] that game because we didn’t get it’, but however we keep going,” she said.

Her radiation and chemotherapy finished a couple of months ago, and they have been proactive in keeping safe and healthy.

Having each other to rely on is something that made it easier for the Bradfords to stay content, but many seniors don’t have that luxury.

That is exactly the case for Margaret Beney, an 85-year-old widow who lives in an apartment by herself in Ontario.

Beney’s adjustment to the pandemic restrictions was not as easy for her as it was for the Bradfords.

The limits on social gatherings and contacts, as well as her outdoor time for exercise, were all sacrifices that were very difficult for her to adjust to. Despite this challenge, she managed to create a new routine that keeps her active and social.

“I go to bed at the same time […] and I know what time I get up, and I keep to that schedule,” Beney said.

She wakes up at 5:00 a.m. each day, and exercises three times a week. When she’s not using the treadmill for exercise, Beney follows a workout DVD called Stronger Seniors.

After her workout, she sometimes delivers newspapers to other apartments in her building. She continues her day by playing the piano and listening to uplifting music, working on WonderWord puzzles, and writing encouraging emails to friends and acquaintances.

“I have a beautiful view out of my window, I can see trees and houses and I see sunsets […] and that encourages me,” Beney said.

When the news of the pandemic hit Beney, she tried to keep her spirits up. She said she was at peace because of her faith, which gave her the ability to adjust to the new situation.

“Ever since my husband died, I’ve been anticipating going to Heaven, and […] even if there was no pandemic, when you’re in your 80s you have to realize that you’re in the final stretch,” she said.

Although some of Beney’s family is out of town, she has been able to see all her grandchildren this past year, and even met her newest great-granddaughter.

“I sit in my apartment and I am so thankful for a nice place to live, and I don’t feel totally isolated because I know there are people around me,” she said.

She said the spirit of thankfulness is a part of what makes cheerful during a time like this, and that she often says what she’s thankful for out loud to encourage herself.

Technology has played a key role in the pandemic’s unfolding, and seniors have turned to it for their daily activities. It was found that 63 per cent of Canadians aged 65 and up have a Facebook account. 70 per cent also agreed that technology can help reduce social isolation.

Beney keeps a distribution list of emails to which she sends messages of encouragement at least once a week. She often goes on Pinterest and finds encouraging words or Bible verses, as well as song lyrics.

“I have one person in particular that I [..] have sent over 150 messages of encouragement [to]”, she said.

Many seniors’ loneliness has been amplified by the pandemic, and unlike Beney, they find it hard to keep a positive attitude.

Beney is fortunate enough to have a loving family to talk to and activities that keep her occupied, while many other seniors are not, which can amplify their loneliness even more.

One way some isolated seniors have been helped during the pandemic is through volunteer programs.

Sabrina Yacoub, a Master’s student studying social work at the University of Toronto, volunteers with an organization called Sprint in Toronto. She gives her time by calling seniors who live alone once a week to check up on them and keep them company.

Currently, Yacoub calls an elderly widow every week to catch up with her and make sure she’s still doing okay.

“[She] gets so excited when I’m about to call her. She’ll be like, ‘I was sitting by the phone and then you called me’, and she’ll say that every time because she’s so excited. I could be the one person she speaks to all day,” she said in an interview with The Pigeon.

“We have things we do together now, so every week I tell her a joke, and she tells me a story, and she knows about my family and I know about hers, so it’s really cool to just have an intergenerational friendship.”

The checkups used to happen in person, but ever since the pandemic happened, they had to be moved to over the phone.

Checkups on seniors who live alone are more important now than ever. Yacoub said that if people don’t have someone to make sure they’re doing okay, they could end up in a life-threatening situation and no one would know, which happens often.

Social isolation has also made many seniors unable to stay healthy and independent at home, causing an influx of visits to hospital emergency services, which negatively impacts the healthcare system. Homebound seniors have experienced more anxiety, depression, and dementia.

Yacoub’s experience with volunteering has helped her gain a new perspective. She said she’s thankful for the opportunity, and that there are hundreds of people doing what she does, and tons of organizations working to help seniors stay stable during the pandemic.

Social workers and organizations have also played a key role in handling the problems some seniors face in the pandemic.

Leeann Trevors, a registered social worker, works as a health navigator for Palliative Education and Care for the Homeless (PEACH). She works with seniors with underlying health conditions who are also homeless in the city of Toronto.

Her clients consist of a unique population who experience marginalization in society as well as vulnerability.

“What makes it difficult is that a lot of people are isolated and are experiencing homelessness, [so] they don’t have family and friends involved in their care,” she told The Pigeon.

Another challenge is tending to their regular physical and social needs. Trevors said some of her elderly clients don’t own cellphones, which makes it difficult to contact them.

“We do continue to meet with them in person and wear proper [personal protective equipment, in order to] up those opportunities for social interaction while maintaining the safety and precautions that are needed,” she said.

Medical services, as well as counselling, are made available by PEACH.

“ I think socializing, and continuing to have those visits in this state, is what’s keeping people psychosocially and mentally well,” Trevors said.

While Trevors works hard to keep homeless elderly people safe during the pandemic, there is a growing problem that there is a lack of personal support workers in Canada, meaning many seniors in need are being left alone for longer, which can make their dementia even worse and also cause depression.

When thinking about overcoming challenges and how to support people in difficult situations such as her clients, Trevors thinks there need to be more programs and better access to technology for them.

“If there were programs or if there was a donation [made by a tech company] that can be made for seniors to have better access to technology so that they can stay in touch with people, […] that would be so beneficial,” Trevors said.

“I think if there’s one way to […] uplift somebody is through social interaction in a safe way, so if that could be made possible that would be one way to just lift their spirits up,” she said.

COVID-19 has undoubtedly changed lives, but some of the lives most affected have been those of the elderly.

When asked about the future, Brian Bradford said that although he doesn’t know what the future holds exactly, he and Anne are ready to face anything.

“We’re open to the change and having to struggle through it as [seniors], but we’re ready to adapt [even though] we don’t know what we’ll adapt to.”

Ingrid Voicu Roth is a University of Waterloo graduate, who is currently completing a graduate diploma program in Journalism at Concordia University. She has always wanted to be a journalist and discover unique stories from unique people and tell them through her writing. Ingrid enjoys an occasional iced coffee, as well as anything to do with cats and kittens. 

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