Keeping Seniors Vibrant During COVID-19

ECF grant helps Westend Seniors Activity Centre provide both tech teaching support and physical fitness programs to seniors in Edmonton and beyond

Westend Seniors Activity Centre is a community hub that has been serving seniors in the greater Edmonton area for the past 42 years. It offers not only recreation, social, and leisure programs to seniors, but also other mental-health and social-outreach services.

“I will proudly say that we might be the most vibrant seniors centre in Alberta, with the amount of programs that we’re offering,” says Dr. Haidong Liang, the centre’s dynamic executive director.  (Dr. Liang was nominated for the 2020 Minister’s Senior Service Awards.)

The Westend Seniors Activity Centre is a physical—and increasingly digital—hub that delivers more than 130 programs to its 2,000 members. And yet, Liang notes, our communities still have seniors who are socially isolated, have low resources and need a lot of help.

“Before, it was one-in-four seniors at risk for social isolation. Now this pandemic is putting everybody at risk,” he emphasizes. “Even the most active seniors, you could tell right away, they declined very fast. Physically and mentally, they declined significantly.”

With a $40,000 Edmonton Community Foundation/Government of Canada grant, the Westend Seniors Activity Centre is now able to provide several programs to seniors at no cost, whether they are members or not.

“Lots of organizations are moving programming online,” Craig Stumpf-Allen, ECF’s Director of Grants and Community Engagement, said.  “Westend Seniors is going a step further by providing support to people who aren’t as comfortable with technology, which will help them stay connected no matter how long the pandemic lasts.”

For one example, the Circle of Friends program at the WSAC had been running for more than 15 years. It has been a popular drop-in activity where people receive support from their peers, and an outreach worker. With COVID-19 protocols, the program is now delivered by outreach workers and three practicum students from the Faculty of Nursing and Faculty of Psychology at the University of Alberta, offering one-on-one support.

Another focus at the WSAC has been to help seniors learn to use technology that has become an important connectivity tool during the pandemic. The grant has enabled staff and contractors to create and deliver step-by-step technology instructions tailored to seniors. Often this is delivered individually, via phone or email, on how to set up and interact via Zoom and Google Meets.

These how-to guides are even printed and hand-delivered to seniors when necessary. “So they have something in hand, at no cost,”  Liang said.

One client found the centre’s programs through an on-line search. They were exactly what he was looking for, but he wasn’t yet a member and lived outside the geographic area, in Northern Alberta. He was invited to join at no cost. ”We’re here to serve all people during the pandemic! ” Liang told him.

“He joined anyway, paid his membership and is signing up for online programs. We’ve taught him online how to use his computer, his iPad, and Zoom. We are just so proud of this example, as a team.”

Dr. Liang’s academic background is in kinesiology, sports, and recreation. By the second week of the pandemic shutdown, Liang and his staff were creating online videos of a free eight-week fitness program for seniors.

In his own home setting, Liang even demonstrates how to use household items, such as water bottles filled with water in the place of weights, to do the exercises. The full fitness program is available for free on the Westend Seniors Activity Centre’s website.

Liang is grateful for this funding that will keep this virtual outreach available to seniors through to March 31, 2021. “This helps us to keep our contractors doing the Zoom tech teaching and our online Circle of Friends support group in place until there’s a vaccine available,” Liang said.

Learn more about the Emergency Community Support Fund.