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The power of connection in a pandemic


“What this COVID does is create a hole, especially in the lives of us older people who live alone.”

By: Hayley Robateau 

In October, seven months after the pandemic began, I had the honour of meeting Alma over the phone. 

She was 97, lived by herself at the time, and was legally blind. Normally an active member of her community, Alma shared with me that her life shrank to the confines of her home when the pandemic started. 

It was an emotionally difficult interview. 

In my role at United Way East Ontario, I have the honour of meeting many people who have overcome significant barriers, with the support of community. My goal in sharing these stories is to lift their voices, help people understand the greatest challenges our communities face, but also show how together, we can make a difference in the lives of real people. 

In this pandemic, when so much of the future seems uncertain, speaking directly with isolated seniors is a stirring reminder that COVID-19 has exacerbated many of the deep-rooted challenges and inequities they were already facing. 

But here’s the thing: isolation isn’t unique to the pandemic. 

Alma’s husband Wylie died in 2019. When he was alive, he would attend a weekly telephone-based social program to connect with other seniors. When COVID-19 shut down many in-person day programs for seniors, and the community was told to keep their distance from those at risk, Alma knew it was her time to reach out to the same program to stay connected to others. 

“In this time when we’re so isolated, it’s so wonderful to have different voices and to be talking to other people.” — Alma

Several years ago, the Good Companions Seniors’ Centre started the Seniors’ Centre Without Walls (SCWW): a free, telephone-based social program. Seniors can call in and take part in health and wellness seminars, educational lectures, musical entertainment, and general conversation with others. 

When COVID-19 entered our communities, the team at United Way East Ontario knew vulnerable seniors would be some of the hardest hit by the pandemic: many live alone and require in-home services and transportation to their appointments, and many others rely on in-person day programs for social interactions with others. 

So, United Way quickly reached out to the Good Companions to ensure seniors were not left behind. In the early days of COVID-19, we strengthened the Seniors’ Centre Without Walls program to have a broader geographic reach across Ottawa, Prescott-Russell, Lanark County and Renfrew County. 

In partnership with the Government of Canada’s Emergency Community Support Fund and New Horizons for Seniors Fund, we supported the Good Companions in bringing the Seniors’ Centre Without Walls to seniors in multiple different languages, and increasing the program offerings so even more people could participate. 

“United Way was there from day one and they continue to be there for us: checking in and making sure that we and the community have the resources we need, and that we are financially stable during a very uncertain time.” — Monique Doolittle-Romas, Executive Director of The Good Companions

A vital connection to the outside world

“My daily life under COVID, it’s very difficult. The telephone becomes your connection with the world. Knowing the phone is going to ring, means there’s something happening in the day and we’re not just looking at a day of empty time.”

When I met with Alma, she shared with me and Rachel Sutcliffe from The Good Companions that, because of her vision impairment, she couldn’t enjoy many at-home activities that others have turned to during COVID-19. She didn’t have a computer, she couldn’t read, and she couldn’t watch TV. For Alma and dozens of other seniors like her, the Seniors’ Centre Without Walls was, and continues to be, a bridge to connecting with others when daily life has become difficult.

Rachel, the coordinator of the Seniors’ Centre Without Walls Program, said that Alma was not alone in her experience.

“What the world has experienced in 2020 with COVID-19 is what many of our participants have lived with for years: that isolation and uncertainty. It takes a toll on our wellbeing because that human connection piece is such an integral part of our health,” she said.

Reaching seniors where they are

Since the beginning of COVID-19, United Way has prioritized supporting seniors, who are some of the most vulnerable people in our communities even before the context of the pandemic. Our goal is to ensure that, despite the isolation, seniors are still supported. 

“This program is extremely valuable right now. Now more than ever, our seniors need to find new and inventive ways of exploring their world and their community, and to help them stay safe and healthy at home. I love hearing the laughter, the stories, and the connections and friendships that grow over the telephone.”

Alma shared with me that at 97 years old, she knew that she wouldn’t be around much longer. Alma died peacefully and on her own terms in November, only a few weeks after we spoke. 

But during the time I had the honour to speak with her, Alma shared that she felt it was important to share her experience, so other seniors could learn about the Seniors’ Centre Without Walls: “I’m so grateful to have had the chance to share.” 

“It was almost like a legacy for her to be able to do this interview,” Rachel said.

“The Seniors’ Centre Without Walls is an absolutely magic thing,” Alma said. “It’s like a ray of sunshine.”

Support vulnerable seniors in our communities. 




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