Peter’s lost a lot in his life. Born four months premature, he lost his sight while still a newborn in the hospital. His twin sister was also lost in the same complicated birth.
Though Peter grew up in Winnipeg and always had a stable of friends, he—like so many others—became separated from his loved ones during the pandemic. It was hard to maintain relationships, and he lost touch with many people in his circle of support.
“When the pandemic was going, to put it mildly, I lost everyone I knew pretty well,” said Peter, now 69 years old. “Not that people died…it was just all of a sudden people weren’t calling me.”
But Peter is a friendly guy. He has a cheeky sense of humour and enjoys a good chat; he’s curious about history and the way things work, and he absolutely loves to learn. Losing those personal connections over the last few years made life overall more challenging for him.
So last November, Peter discovered a lifeline—the Senior Centre Without Walls Program, run by United Way Winnipeg donor-supported agency A & O: Support Services for Older Adults.
The program is comprised of live telephone conference call-style sessions that join together Older Manitobans 55-plus for conversations, topical discussions, and read-aloud books. When Peter found the centre, he also found the companionship, knowledge, and community he’d been missing out on.
“When you can’t be together … this is the next best thing.”
“When you can’t be together … this is the next best thing. You can actually talk to people,” said Peter. “Now, I talk to some of the people in the group … We’ve had some laughs.
“I’ve enjoyed it. I feel good.”
Senior Centre Without Walls Program Facilitator Lydia Robertson said sessions run twice a day, from Monday to Friday, with fresh content planned out every four months. As many as 60 people are sometimes on the calls, where a huge range of topics are covered: from art therapy to educational speakers, health and wellness information, fun and games. It’s all geared to older adults, and all accessible from the comfort of home.
“We try to be very interactive … Everyone gets a turn to speak if they would like to do that,” said Robertson, adding participants will even sing to friends on the call who are celebrating birthdays.
“We just get to know each other by our voices and get to know each other’s personalities that way,” Robertson said. “There is definitely a special type of bond that people have by getting to know each other little bit by little bit.
“This gives them a reason … to join in and hear other people’s voices and just become kind of part of a big family.”
A & O CEO Amanda Macrae said she’s heard tremendous feedback about the Senior Centre Without Walls Program, both from children of older adults—who are grateful for the connections their parents are making—and from participants themselves.
“It's life-changing for a lot of people. It's very profound.”
“It’s life changing for lots of people. It’s very profound,” Macrae said. “Some of the feedback we get: it gives me a reason to get out of bed in the morning; it’s my lifeline; I didn’t feel there was anybody who cared about me.
“It’s critical in keeping people connected. It’s critical in letting people know that they’re not alone and there is a community around them and there are supports.”
A & O has been working for Manitoba older adults for more than 50 years. With a mandate to improve the quality of life for older adults in Manitoba through advocacy, education and service delivery, A & O defines their services under three foundational pillars: safety and security, social engagement, and counselling.
“Every day we wake up, we are another day older,” said Macrae. “We can’t ‘other’ ageing—we will all experience it, whether we want to or not. The goal of A & O … is to make sure that we support people in aging well.”
Loneliness and isolation are just some of the challenges facing older adults right now, Macrae said. Housing, food security, elder abuse prevention, safety, and more are currently top of mind for A & O’s participants, their families, and the organization’s staff.
As one of the first agencies to be funded by United Way Winnipeg back in 1965, Macrae said she’s grateful for such a long-term, consistent relationship that supports A & O as it continues to pivot to meet the emerging needs of Manitoba’s older adults.
“It’s so important and so appreciated,” said Macrae of United Way Winnipeg. “United Way is always there for A & O. They’ve been very receptive, very keen to innovate with us, to support us … I think that’s really critical to meet the needs of population aging.”
As for Peter, he’s already signed himself up for just about every session the Senior Centre Without Walls Program is offering this spring. He said he is grateful to be able to reach out, meet friends, learn new things—and contribute to a supportive community that is so important for his well-being.
“We are social animals. We are not meant to be isolated,” he said.
“We are meant to be together.”