81-year-old Nedra loves to sing and make people happy. For 44 years, she’s performed everywhere across the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley, from seniors’ centres to the Commodore Ballroom, as part of her group, Harmony 5. So, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Abbotsford resident especially hard. Along with not being able to perform, she wasn’t able to see her children and grandchildren, some of whom live in Ontario.
“What I really miss is hugging my kids and even talking to them. You know, this distance hugging doesn’t do [it] the same,” Nedra says. “A lot of seniors are having a problem, I have a lot of friends and I do reach out to them, but I’ve got so that I don’t sometimes even feel like phoning out to people.”
Increasing loneliness and isolation
Prior to COVID-19, 46% of British Columbians said they sometimes felt lonely according to a United Way study. A survey by Vancouver Coastal Health found that over half of community-dwelling residents aged 65 and older have three or fewer people in their social network they can confide in. While about a quarter of Metro Vancouver residents aged 65 and older say they do not feel a sense of community belonging. As physical distancing to prevent pandemic spread to keep seniors like Nedra safe, social isolation increased.
Recognizing the need to tackle social isolation and loneliness on a local level, United Way began the Hi Neighbour initiative embedding community engagement teams in neighbourhoods across the region, three years ago.
Today, there are 12 United Way Hi Neighbour communities: Clayton Heights, Surrey; Lonsdale, North Vancouver; Sardis, Chilliwack; Cedar Valley, Mission; Sunset, Vancouver; North Delta; Edmonds; Burnaby, Central Squamish; Whalley/Newton, Surrey; Willoughby, Langley; Babich/Mill Lake, Abbotsford; and Hammond, Maple Ridge.
Hi Neighbour is designed to strengthen vital connections between community members through community projects, events, volunteerism and mutual aid. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the initiative proved invaluable for reaching our region’s most vulnerable citizens.
“For seniors, social isolation is associated with increased risk of mortality on par with or greater than more traditional risk factors such as alcohol use, smoking and obesity,” says Kim Winchell, Senior Director, Strategy & Operations, Community Impact and Investment at United Way.
“It’s important that people see and believe others care about them no matter who they are, what their age or where they are from. Seniors give to our communities in so many ways from knowledge sharing to volunteering. United Way’s Hi Neighbour program and our Community Builders are making sure seniors not only feel appreciated and acknowledged for their contributions, but also supported and cared for.”