Being a “senior” encompasses a lot. It’s a catch-all for those who are older: in some cases, beginning with a senior’s discount as early as 55 and stretching well past the century mark for others.
For Ellen Helgason, a recreation therapist with Alberta Health Services at Red Deer Bremner Avenue Community Health Centre, the date when someone was born doesn’t really come into play when she thinks of the seniors with whom she works.
“We don’t necessarily look at the age, but we look at the person. Ultimately, that’s kind of how we provide our service,” Helgason explained.
“Yes, I do work with an older population, but my goal is to keep them active and engaged, and part of their community.”
Helgason works closely with Community Partners in Action, a group made up of representatives from the Wolf Creek Primary Care Network, Innisfail Family and Community Support Services, Innisfail Medical Clinic, and the Town of Innisfail.
Located about 34 km south of Red Deer along the QEII (Highway 2), Innisfail is home to about 8,000 residents. Close to 20 per cent of the community’s population is over 65 years.
Community Partners in Action began as a means of building a dementia-friendly community in Innisfail by creating awareness and supporting those with the disease and their caregivers.
Innisfail mayor, Jean Barclay, is grateful for the work that Community Partners in Action—a 2021 recipient of the RhPAP Rhapsody Health-care Heroes Award—has accomplished in the last few years.
Barclay is very familiar with dementia. Her mother had Alzheimer’s disease, and she knows, “How important it is to ensure that people living with dementia stay active, stay involved in the community, and have a feeling of belonging.”
She insists that offering support to local seniors, many who have devoted countless volunteer hours to places such as the Lundgren Centre (seniors’ drop-in), Friends of the Library, and other community programming, is the right thing to do, she said.
“[Being active] is important to [seniors’] health, and it’s important to the health of our community to make sure that it remains vibrant,” said Barclay, noting the community’s programming encourages seniors to stay in the community and continue to play an active role.
“It’s about quality of life, it’s about supporting that person to age in place, and to remain active and engaged.”
Sandra Taylor moved to the neighbouring community of Bowden seven years ago. The former Newfoundland resident is impressed with the area resources for seniors from the Memory Cafe (a place where people with dementia and their caregivers can interact while enjoying a beverage) to classes that help educate seniors on fall prevention and keep them physically active.
Taylor was quick to seek support for a friend when that friend began to show signs of dementia.
“I knew she was going to need help, so I encouraged her and said, ‘I’ll go with you to these places where you can get the exercise and do the Memory Cafe.’”
Taylor said the program has been a wonderful opportunity for her friend to mingle with others.
“She was stuck in her house not meeting people … She’s a very sociable person. She does great [at the Memory Cafe]. She loves it. She’s even spoken twice, I believe, on behalf of people with Alzheimer’s and dementia,” said Taylor who also volunteers for the program.
Giving back to her community has also been a wonderful experience for Charlene Carver.
It was during an Innisfail community event where Carver suddenly realized that the people who supported her family over the years now needed her help.
“I thought, ‘how can I give back to all these people who gave to me, my kids, and my community?”
That thought led Carver to her current volunteer role coordinating the Memory Cafe, which creates social opportunities including field trips to local attractions, arts and crafts projects, virtual tours (born out of COVID-19), and activities that allow participants to share their experiences.
She insists, “It’s a really great fulfilment. It’s hard to explain the joy that I get.”
This volunteer work has also helped Carver better understand the changes her mother, who lives in a northern Alberta community, faces with early onset dementia.
Carver is amazed at the impact the twice-monthly program has on the people with dementia in the community and those around them. During one recent trip to a zoo, a participant who has been non-verbal for quite some time suddenly heard a raven and began mimicking its sound, much to the delight of his caregiver.
For Helgason, providing support is important for everyone no matter where they are in the circle of life.
“I put myself in their shoes [and ask], ‘Well, what would they want? Where would they want to live?’ and then [consider] whatever their goals are and what their wishes are. How can we as health-care providers…make that happen? That’s part of client-centred care,” Helgason added
“It’s a huge thing, right? It’s about listening to what the client wants and needs. And then, …being able to support them in their journey as they age.”
The success of Community Partners in Action is inspiring other rural communities such as Drumheller, Hanna, Three Hills, and Vegreville to follow suit with programs of their own, said Helgason.
“The one nice thing with Innisfail and our group is, we’re not fans of reinventing the wheel, so everything that we’ve accomplished in Innisfail, we are happy to share. We’re happy to consult with other communities.”
Further resources for seniors in the Innisfail area are available here. For more information on Rural Population Health including on seniors, visit RhPAP U.
— Lorena Franchuk