The past two years of the pandemic have been difficult for many of our clients on many fronts. Because of how and where Unison is situated in the Lawrence Heights community, the health promotion team has been developing long term relationships with many of our seniors living in the TCH buildings, located both sides of the Unison buildings. Over the years, we have run seniors programming to help address social isolation and meal programs to attempt to address some of the chronic food security issues. At the start of the pandemic, the team had to pivot to support them in a very different way. Being responsive to the rapidly changing needs in a pandemic situation allowed the health promotion team to become even more creative and solution-focused. The team managed to spring into action to acquire and distribute supplies (if we still remember how hand sanitizer, toilet paper and paper towels became such scare resources back then) and cooked meals to the seniors living in the Lawrence Heights neighborhood.
The team later identified that inability to access timely information and connect with others via the internet had become a huge barrier to the seniors during these difficult and confusing times. The team decided to host a pilot program to provide some limited digital devices we could obtain and partner with the library to acquire Wi-Fi hotspots for them. They managed to provide weekly digital literary training to 30 seniors outdoors over the summer.
Unison leveraged on this successful pilot project and applied for a 5-year funding from United Way. We were fortunate be approved for this grant to address this digital divide amongst our senior populations in all Unison communities. This past year, we have reached 30 more seniors and supported a total of 60 seniors in Lawrence Heights to access digital devices and connectivity. The uniqueness of this grant opportunity is that it not only offers digital resources, but also addresses stigma associated with mental health within the senior populations by creating low-barrier access to mental health support from a social worker and youth volunteers called “Tech Buddies”, as well as meaningful intergenerational interactions with high school students from a local high school. This past year, Seniors Online has successfully connected 14 seniors to receive individual supports from the Social Worker, and 16 seniors to connect with their Tech Buddies for tech and social support on a weekly basis. All 60 seniors had the opportunity to be paired up with a high school student to dialogue and share their life stories.
Below is one quote from a senior participant:
“The best part of the program was having younger people explain and show us different things about technology. Also they learned so much from us and our life experiences. You learn at any age, and I just believe in learning, meeting new people and making friends; never think as an elder that we cannot learn from the young people”.
Another senior participant was so proud to “show off” what she had learned from the program that she took the initiative to create a PowerPoint presentation and shared it with the group at the end of the program (see below). This senior continued to apply her learning by organizing zoom social meetings with her peers even after the program finished.
In 2021-22, we recruited and trained 8 youths to be Tech Buddies and 29 high school students to engage in intergenerational conversations and activities. All of the youths expressed that they have benefitted by interacting with the seniors. Many of them learned important life lessons from hearing stories from seniors and being encouraged to reconnect to their roots, their own families and heritage. One student shared that:
“I am heavily influenced by the Western culture and have witnessed youth of my generation disrespecting elders. I see this as an injustice to the society. Growing up disconnected from my family and heritage, I was never able to gain valuable life lessons and wisdom from older family members. You [the senior participant] have been my source of wisdom. You have motivated me to take my own personal risks and add more meaning to my life. You’ve allowed me to connect back to my roots and taught me important lessons like how to save money.”