Fighting isolation, promoting health

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Being an immigrant when you are 65 and over is a particular challenge, says Karen Anne Blakely, Director of the Senior Services at Jewish Family Services in Ottawa. Blakely and representatives of other newcomer support agencies in the city teamed up to implement the “Engaging Immigrant Seniors Project.” The three-year long project in the Champlain health region, including Ottawa and surroundings, aims at helping immigrant seniors with daily living, health concerns and community integration. In this interview with Canadian Newcomer, Blakely explained how the project works and how successful it has been so far.

Why the project started?
Mainstream agencies were not necessarily serving immigrant seniors. We decided to implement a project to provide language and culture-specific services so seniors could use the services of a volunteer who spoke the same language or understood their culture to be able to drive them to their medical doctor, for example.

Engaging Immigrant Seniors started in 2008 and it is funded through the Champlain Local Health Integration Network. There are nine agencies involved in it and it is part of the region’s Aging at Home Strategy; the project helps seniors access medical information, get to their family doctors and treat their conditions at home or at clinics.

What are the main differences in needs between Canada-born seniors and newcomer ones?
I would say that the needs of the seniors are the same, it’s just that the immigrant seniors may not necessarily be aware of all the services that they could access to help them as they age. Immigrant families may support their immigrant senior parent or grandparent at home or at an apartment, but might not necessarily know of all the services that are available to them. And even if they are aware, they may not access them because the people offering the services, don’t speak their language, and seniors are not comfortable. Or the services are not culturally sensitive to the seniors’ needs. So they are being a little more isolated that way.

Who are your clients, people who came to Canada as seniors, or newcomers who arrived at a younger age?
A lot of the people that we work with have come to Canada as seniors – sponsored by their adult children. So learning a new language can be quite difficult for them, and even if they do participate in some of those language classes, but not understand the English language enough to have a conversation with their doctors about their care needs. We do serve some [seniors] that have been in Canada for quite a while, but are not culturally connected more with their ethnic communities than with mainstream Canadians.

What are the services the project provides?
We are trying to recruit volunteers who can provide daily reassurance calls to seniors, or are fluent in a language that a senior speaks – so that’s really just a check-in, to see how they are doing. If they are not doing well, then the volunteers help them to access some services that could deal with the situation. We try to find volunteers who can drive seniors to their medical appointments, and even stay to help them do the translating, if it’s necessary. If we know a senior who is isolated at home – perhaps the adult children and grandchildren are off to work, and the seniors at home without company – we could send a friendly visitor. Volunteers could go and spend some time with a senior at a long-term care home, who is not able to communicate with the staff.

We have some professional case workers in Somali and Arabic languages, and those individuals work with particularly difficult cases. So if a senior needs help navigating the health care system or filling out forms, or if a senior is contemplating a particular kind of treatment, these professionals can help.

The social outreach part involves some dining opportunities, lectures on health or health exercise programs, such as walking class. It is just an opportunity for seniors to come together and enjoy each other’s company

How do you inform seniors about the project?
Because we are situated in 9 different agencies, we do expect those agencies to have a connection with their communities. We do things like including information in a particular language to newsletters distributed to the immigrant seniors.

What is the most popular service? 
The most popular service is the social outreach part – the opportunities for seniors to get together with other seniors, share their stories and share a meal. This creates a big impact!
But once seniors come together, share with each other and build a relationship with our staff, we might learn about a particular difficulty that they are facing and help them access a necessary resource.

The project has been in existence for about 3 years now. Have you seen an increase in the number of clients?
The first year was really a planning year. We brought all of the agencies together and decided how we could work together. There was really not a lot of money to be hiring in that first year, and we didn’t really impact any seniors. In the second year of the project, we had money to hire staff. By the end of that year, we served about 800 seniors. We only anticipated to be reaching 350, so we were very surprised. We knew that the need existed, and that the seniors were really enjoying all of the programs we were offering. But now we are in the middle of the third year, and so far, we have already reached 500 seniors.

What is going to happen after the end of the program term?
We will be in negotiations with the funder to make this project ongoing. We are letting them know about the impact and how we are keeping the seniors away from emergency rooms. I’m very, very confident that we will be able to continue. What we know is that we impact seniors who were not using these services previously; we know that we have connected them with professionals and volunteers that would help them to age successfully at home.

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