“Thank God for people who are knocking and calling in”: How Seniors Connect is supporting TCHC’s elder tenants during the pandemic

TCHC seniors from the Danforth community give a thumbs up to the Seniors Connect program

TCHC seniors from the Danforth community give a thumbs up to the Seniors Connect program

For many seniors living in TCHC's East Region, senior initiatives under Active Living programs were typically the highlight of their week. Whether it's physical activities like 45-minute exercise sessions or group meditations, or social activities like bowling, karaoke, and dominoes tournaments, these programs offered meaningful engagement opportunities for them and their fellow peers.

"Our team works really hard to engage our elder community members and is proud of our work with our senior tenants," says Ryan James, Program Coordinator, Tenant and Community Services. "Whether it's assisting with food deliveries or conducting door-to-door wellness checks, we've always ensured our senior tenants are cared for all throughout the year."

But when the pandemic shook the world in March 2020, things had to change. The COVID-19 crisis impacted everyone, everywhere. This was especially true for the older tenants in TCHC's communities. Active Living programs were paused for health and safety reasons: no more in-person exercises, bowling, karaoke nights, or any group interactions.

"The impact of the pandemic was blatantly evident right from the start with restrictions on interaction, mobility, and a scarcity of food, and just a general sense of fear for our senior population," remembers James. "Not only this, but there was a growing sense of isolation, loneliness, and depression."

James and his team noticed that many of the senior tenants were overjoyed when reached out to by a simple phone call. Most of it stemmed from their dire need to communicate with community members outside their isolated lock-downs.

So was born the Seniors Connect program. Seniors Connect is simply about "connecting" via regular, consistent conversations with a trusted and familiar voice. James and his team developed a program all about making daily or weekly phone calls to tenants to check-in and conduct wellness checks, share building resources and vaccine information – but also exchange funny stories, recipes, and recent news in their communities. Sometimes, these calls may entail a leading of light, virtual exercises such as meditation or chair yoga. Some calls are 30 minutes long. Others last much longer, depending on the tenants' needs.

Patricia Matthews and Cathy Zhao

L-R: Patricia Matthews and Cathy Zhao

"Understanding the negative impact caused by the pandemic on our senior population, we realized the urgency in developing and implementing this program," says Cathy Zhao, Senior Program Leader, Active Living, who is a member of the small team making regular calls. "It started as a 2 month pilot that has grown to what it is today. We're still going strong and the feedback from seniors have been overwhelming."

Indeed, in a matter of a couple weeks, what started as check-ins with 40 senior tenants has grown to 120 tenants in 10 TCHC communities.

"There was so much interest. We had to limit the capacity due to limited staffing," says James.

Seniors Connect has made all the difference for vulnerable tenants and they're tremendously grateful to the staff.

"Because of COVID-19, we seniors have been locked in the home, feel bored, upset, and helpless," states Ms. Shuli Zhang, a resident at 3330 Danforth Ave. "But since this past spring, a young lady from TCHC whose name is Cathy Zhao started calling me with a soft voice."

"She not only asked how everything is with me, but she also chatted with me about daily life, including sharing health and medical advice. I never expected somebody could care for me in that way. Her phone call makes me feel much better."

This is a common sentiment among seniors receiving calls from James and his team.

"They sometimes want to keep us on the phone for hours," says Patricia Matthews, Senior Program Leader, Active Living. "Overtime, they started to call us and their demeanors have changed. You can sense more cheer in their voice."

Ryan James, Patricia Matthews, and program participant Esther Persaud

L-R: Ryan James, Patricia Matthews, and program participant Esther Persaud

Today, the team is connecting tenants with one another through conference calling and video services like Zoom so that they can stay meaningfully connected with their peers. And while technology access and knowledge can be a barrier to many seniors, the team continues to work through them.

Zhao and Matthews also works with local food banks like the Daily Bread and Soso World Ministries to prepare food boxes and personally deliver them to the doors of the most vulnerable seniors facing food insecurity. This is done on the weekly basis.

What's more, in December 2020, The Children's Breakfast Club approached Matthews and offered $100 PC gift cards for seniors and families at TCHC. As such, many senior tenants who are part of Seniors Connect received them in the mail over the past number of months and will continue to do so moving forward. Over $40,000 in gift cards have been delivered to date.

As TCHC communities continue to deal with the on-going pandemic heading into winter, many may wonder what the future is for the Seniors Connect program. For the seniors, however, their wishes are loud and clear.

"We hope we can continually receive this service in the future after the pandemic," proclaims Ms. Ziqi Gao, tenant at 3330 Danforth Ave.

Ms. Gao is not alone. The program has made all the difference for people who may otherwise feel alone.

"We have calls coming in once or twice a week…that means that someone cares and you're not alone," shares Olivine Green, tenant on Shaughnessy Blvd. "Thank God for people who are knocking and calling in."

About Toronto Community Housing

Toronto Community Housing (www.torontohousing.ca) is Canada's largest social housing provider. Toronto Community Housing provides homes for nearly 60,000 low- and moderate-income households in neighbourhoods across the city. Toronto Community Housing is wholly owned by the City of Toronto and represents a $10-billion public asset.

Media contact TCHC: TCHC media line, (416) 737-1352 or media@torontohousing.ca