For These Canadian Students, Local Seniors Are Like Family!

A dedicated team of young volunteers in Ontario won’t let loneliness win.

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There are some people who, when faced with a challenge, always look for a solution. Southern Ontario resident, Mahad Shahzad, 22, is one of them. When the need to shelter in place meant that fellow students from the non-profit he founded could no longer visit lonely seniors in their care homes, he came up with an idea. He set up a helpline inviting older people to feel better by connecting with university students for some meaningful chats over the phone instead.

Shahzad’s new helpline simply shifts the work of Chatting to Wellness, the non-profit he founded in 2017 connecting university students with seniors in retirement homes, to the phone. These free, 45-minute chats offer a convenient and confidential emotional outlet to seniors in quarantine, and a space where they can share worries as well as joy. And these “Chatting Sessions” are offered to all seniors across Canada, many of whom have no or reduced access to family and friends right now.

This drive to combat isolation with companionship is timely. New data compiled by Statistics Canada during the pandemic confirms that seniors are more susceptible to the harmful effects of social isolation. The data finds that more than 10 percent of seniors aged 65 to 74 did not have close friends, which rises to 15 percent for seniors aged 75 and older.

As Chatting to Wellness explains on Twitter: “[We’re] here to talk about anything you wish and are sure to put a smile on your face! Despite isolation, we are still smiling, over the phone…during our Online Chatting Sessions!” “Chatters” discuss topics like family, hobbies, TV, friends, and of course, the past, to make seniors feel cared for and show them that they matter.

Advocates of the therapeutic benefits of just talking to others, they are aware that talking through things leads to a healthier, more relaxed mindset, less stress and so better mental health. All volunteers are trained in the art of gently leading an inspiring conversation.

And the reception to the new evening helpline idea has been extremely positive. “WE Celebrate: Class of 2020” which is honoring Canadian graduates making positive changes during COVID-19, has shared its support. Singer Joe Jonas was filmed praising Shahzad’s work on Canadian TV recently:

People active in their local communities have responded positively to this initiative too. Canadian MPP, Christine Hogarth, for instance, is signposting the new Chatting Sessions on her website and Toronto City Councilor, Michael Ford,  is also tweeting his support. It has become clear to communities worldwide that since the pandemic impacted our daily lives, seniors are especially vulnerable, and need practical help as well as emotional support. The isolation and loneliness that older people feel in general is also under the spotlight.

Meanwhile, Chatting to Wellness is flagging its own priceless team of volunteers, people like Lilly:

And Chatting for Wellness has notched up several achievement milestones already. Its kind student “reps” have shared over 3,000 chatting sessions to date, and 90 percent of seniors who have had at least three consecutive chats with students go on to interact more with other residents and staff in their care homes, the website reports.

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