04/24/2020 14:32 EDT | Updated 04/28/2020 09:03 EDT

Help For Canadian Seniors' Loneliness Comes Via Ontario University Students

A group of Ontario students is volunteering to make sure Canada's older citizens have someone to talk to.

Courtesy of Chatting to Wellness
Chatting to Wellness volunteers visited seniors weekly before the pandemic. Now, they've launched a program to call seniors who want to talk.

When Mahad Shahzad visited family in Pakistan while in university, he was struck that although his grandparents were living with his family, they were still eating and watching TV alone. 

Returning home to Ontario, he remembers thinking, “[If] that’s how it is back home with my grandparents in such a family-oriented culture, what is it like here?”

After doing research, he realized that many of the mental health supports available to young people, ones he has relied on himself as a student like counselling and hotlines, were not available to older adults and seniors. 

In 2017, Shahzad founded Chatting to Wellness, a non-profit that brings young people to visit with seniors in retirement and long-term care homes. The organization is now moving to a remote model to provide opportunities for seniors across the country to stay social amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Seniors — or their family members or loved ones — can fill out an online form, and they will receive a call from a volunteer, or “chatter.” 

“Seniors shouldn’t feel like this is a bad thing, that if you are calling or need [any] sort of help, that it says that you’re doing poorly or that you are a lonely person, you don’t have friends,” Shahzad, currently a fourth-year student at York University’s Schulich School of Business, told HuffPost Canada. 

“It’s none of that. It’s just if you’re someone who wants to talk — and we’re social people, everyone wants to talk to someone — [then] sign up.”

Courtesy of Mahad Shahzad
Mahad Shahzad founded Chatting to Wellness, a team of volunteers who visit or call seniors.

In Canada, almost half of COVID-19 deaths have been in long-term care homes. Ontario Premier Doug Ford has called in the military to support staff, as COVID-19 outbreaks are ravaging the homes. There have been over 400 deaths in Ontario long-term care homes, including one personal support worker. 

Before the pandemic, loneliness for seniors in long-term care was already a concern — Shahzad remembers a time when he chatted with a woman who hadn’t had a visitor in 25 years, according to staff. 

There were 5.9 million seniors in Canada in 2016, according to census data.

Canadians aged 85 and older accounted for about 2.2 per cent of the country’s population in 2016, according to data from Statistics Canada. One-third of Canadians 85 and older lived in collective dwellings, such as nursing homes. 

Approximately 50 per cent of people over the age of 80 report feeling lonely, and men over 80 have the highest suicide rate of all age groups, a 2013-14 report from Canada’s National Seniors Council found. 

Seniors who are socially isolated are more at risk of smoking, drinking, not being active and not eating well, the report suggests. They’re also more likely to be hospitalized. 

Now that long-term care homes are closed to visitors, there are fewer social opportunities for residents. Seniors living on their own are also unable to engage in the social activities they might have done previously, like going to an event at a community centre, Shahzad points out.

Courtesy of Chatting to Wellness
Before the pandemic, Chatting to Wellness volunteers visited seniors weekly to provide social interaction.

Seniors were already more vulnerable to social isolation and loneliness before the COVID-19 pandemic, Verena Menec, a professor at the University of Manitoba’s department of community health sciences and former director of the university’s Centre on Aging, told HuffPost Canada. 

Menec said she conducted a national study where loneliness was defined as people feeling lonely three or more days in a week. Ten per cent of participants between the ages of 65-74 were lonely, as were 13 per cent of people aged 75-85.

“Loneliness is very much related to depressive symptoms or psychological distress [including] both anxiety and depression,” she said. 

But there’s no evidence that shows online contact is the same as in-person social contact — and we don’t know the long-term consequences of relying on online contact, Menec said.

For those looking to help seniors, Menec suggests trying to maintain contact — in most cases, from afar, per social distancing guidelines — to both check in that they’re safe, and give them the chance to have some social interaction, even over the phone. 

Shahzad is hoping to get more seniors to sign up for Chatting to Wellness, and eventually turn the service — currently available Monday to Friday nights — into a hotline. 

Despite not putting out a call-out for volunteers, Shahzad said more than 50 have signed up in the last week since Chatting to Wellness launched its remote calls. While the volunteers are mainly university students, a 62-year-old recently signed up to volunteer. 

“I think that says a lot about the communities in Toronto, the GTA, Ontario … and their passion and belief in what we’re doing,” he said.

With a file from the Canadian Press

Earlier on HuffPost: Ontario Premier Doug Ford addresses families with loved ones in long-term care.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Chatting to Wellness founder Mahad Shahzad as Mahad Shazhad.