To say that COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on British Columbians would be an understatement. The virus has disrupted anything that we would call the normal activities of daily life. Most of us have had to make major compromises: where we go, what we do and how we can avoid getting the terrible virus. These adjustments have had a major impact on Jewish Seniors Alliance clients, who are already compromised by loneliness and isolation.
How we serve our clients and how we support our volunteers has undergone major changes – let’s give it the label “reinventing peer services.” In order to better understand what has taken place, I interviewed Charles Leibovitch, JSA senior peer support services coordinator, and Grace Hann, JSA trainer of volunteers of senior support services.
In the beginning
By mid-March 2020, the first sign of COVID-19 began to show its ugly head. The lockdown left clients and volunteers absolutely unprepared. Persons who were already isolated and lonely found themselves even more isolated and lonelier. As time progressed, clients were cut off from family members who might have supported their relatives through personal contact and social events. This was especially devastating for persons without family.
In many situations, volunteers were their primary contact; their lifeline! Being alone undermines one’s mental health. Being alone exaggerates one’s fear of COVID-19. Most of the clients were cut off from community programs, like adult day care. Spouses who usually spent time with their spouse in a long-term care facility were also cut off. Simple activities like going for a walk and sitting on a bench were curtailed. Elders had depended on having that human connection – having that human touch makes us feel needed and whole.
Volunteers meet challenge
The changing scene called for quick action, initiated by Grace and Charles. Instead of personal visits, the telephone would become the prime instrument of contact between volunteers and their clients. It was necessary to contact the volunteers quickly. Support for the volunteers would be provided by Zoom. This necessitated a steep learning curve for volunteer and client. After all, making and keeping the connection was critical. The three services – peer support, friendly visits and friendly phone calls – had to be reassessed in terms of the neediest clients. Each of the three services’ volunteers had different levels of training by Grace.
In some situations, a certified peer support volunteer was assigned to a person who ordinarily would have had contact with a friendly visitor or a friendly phone caller. Moving from in-person contact to impersonal contact was a major transition – almost like reinventing how support was to be provided. The JSA volunteers made the transition like veterans, with the extraordinary help of Grace and Charles. There was an increase in the contacts between volunteers and clients and an increase in Zoom online meetings to support the very special work being carried out by the volunteers.
Supporting the volunteers
Grace and Charles organized many activities, including outdoor picnics, weekly webinar seminars, a Chanukah party with a singalong and group support meetings every three weeks. The spirit and esprit de corps by the volunteers has been amazing. Volunteers will send cards to their clients as an additional way to keep in contact. Who doesn’t like to receive mail?
Challenging times require challenging solutions. Charles and Grace rose to the challenge and proved that, with dedication, imagination and determination, obstacles can be overcome. When the COVID-19 vaccine has been fully distributed, we will establish a “new normal.” This will present JSA, Grace, Charles and the volunteers with a new set of issues and situations. And, as the song goes, “we shall overcome” – they will face these challenges with creativity, empathy and caring.
Ken Levitt is a past president of Jewish Seniors Alliance, former chief executive officer of Louis Brier Home and Hospital, and a past chair of Camp Miriam. In 1985, he co-edited The Challenge of Child Welfare, the first textbook on child welfare in Canada. A version of this article originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Senior Line.