While it’s true that anyone can say hello or drop in for a cup of coffee to help an isolated senior, the average person can’t be expected to provide in-depth navigation support that some seniors require to access essential supports and services. The seniors’ sector is large and complicated. Without an experienced guide, it is easy to get lost in its many pathways.
Agency-based community connectors–volunteers, para-professionals, and professional staff– provide a range of expertise and guidance to help seniors navigate complex systems. Examples of agency-based community connectors include peer supporters, language and cultural interpreters, outreach workers, and assisted transportation drivers.
In 2016, six community organizations, assisted by the Edmonton Seniors Coordinating Council, joined together to undertake initiatives to reduce seniors’ social isolation. The group was called PEGASIS, or the Pan-Edmonton Group Addressing Social Isolation of Seniors. The collaborative discovered that one of the major challenges of addressing social isolation is the difficulty of finding individuals who have few social connections.
The organizations noted the importance of engaging community connectors a variety of roles suited to the specific needs of the programs and participants. Following a community development model, these connectors worked at the grassroots level to seek out seniors who were already, or could be at risk of becoming, isolated.
The effectiveness of community connectors quickly became evident throughout the PEGASIS initiative. Connectors noted that reaching out to neighbours and acquaintances could open the door to finding seniors who were isolated. When a senior was identified, the connector took the time to develop a relationship and build trust. If the person wanted or needed particular programs or services, the connector could act as a trusted helper to facilitate a referral, introduction, or just offer a hand when needed.
For example, when picking up a senior at her home, a Drive Happiness volunteer driver observed that the woman appeared to struggle keeping up with house cleaning. The volunteer was able to act as a trusted ‘bridger’ to connect the rider with home support services.
Agency-based community connectors have the resources, know-how and team support from their senior-serving organizations. They are not only vital for getting older adults socially connected, they are instrumental in lessening some of the stressors that contribute to isolation and other health problems.
Health care providers like doctors, nurses, and therapists know about the devastating impacts of isolation on psychological and physical health, but they don’t have time to connect seniors to community programs and supports. The connectors’ ‘bridging role’ can significantly augment the work of health care specialists and bolster seniors’ overall health and wellness.
For more information about the role of agency-based connectors, reference this diagram. The diagram was informed by patterns that emerged during the PEGASIS project and shows the pathway taken by connectors to support seniors.