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Seniors find strong social connections and improved health at adult day programs

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

Frail seniors and their caregivers have come to rely on Adult Day Programs for the social connections that contribute to cognitive and physical well-being. Early in 2020 more than 1,000 seniors in communities across Vancouver Island were enrolled in 27 Adult Day Programs that have had to adapt and find new ways to support clients while following the rules of physical distancing. 

“Day programs provide frail seniors who are often in the early to moderate stages of dementia with some regular physical exercise, cognitive games, a sense of community and an opportunity to develop new friendships among their peer group,” said Marni Radford, a manager with Island Health’s Community Strategy team. 

“At the same time it provides their caregiver with some much-needed regular respite, which then allows them to attend appointments, or run errands or just have some downtime. Often times that caregiver is a spouse and it can be very hard on them. It’s a relief for them to know that their loved one is going somewhere they’re going to be safe and looked after, be engaged and have fun.”

Adult Day Programs may be the primary source of socialization for some participants, said Radford. “A lot of our day program participants do have a caregiver, but not all of them do. Some of them are living alone and they might have home support that comes in but the rest of the time they’re on their own.

“The social connection is so important. We’ve heard time and time again from family members who have seen that, after someone has attended day programs for a little, while, they’re so much more engaged, they’re happier.”

Losing those connections was a significant concern to program leaders when, due to the onset of COVID-19, in-person programs were suspended in March. Program operators immediately began looking for new ways to support their clients, perhaps through telephone calls or video visits, to maintain social connections and ensure they were connected to community supports for things like food and medicine deliveries. 

One small program on Gabriola Island was able to take things several steps further, launching weekly deliveries of meals and activities, in addition to telephone visits and a newsletter for participants to share news and information with their friends. Participants are even contributing to their own version of a Farmer’s Almanac. The goal is to bring as much of the regular Adult Day Program as possible to people in their own homes, said Suzette Delmage, coordinator of seniors programs for People for A Healthy Community, the non-profit society that runs the program.

During the regular program participants get to interact with peers and program volunteers. “They sit down for lunch, they chat, they get to know each other when they’re here,” said Delmage. “We also include a lot of fun activities so people will have a good time when they come to the program.”

The program cook now prepares and packages fresh meals that are delivered once a week, along with an activity like puzzles or crafts. The program newsletter, full of fun information from the participants, is also delivered with their care package. The deliveries, along with phone conversations, are appreciated by the participants. 

101-year-old Cecily Danenhower, who lives alone on the Island, enjoys seeing the volunteers at her door and receiving her weekly care package. “I certainly am appreciative of the program and bringing something different to eat, my own cooking is sort of rotten,” she said, laughing. “Every single person that I’ve been close to in my life, good friends and even my relatives, are all dead, so it gives me a chance to associate. I really do just enjoy the people.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by other participants. “The lunch delivery is like having Christmas every Wednesday,” said Pat DeMuth, who has been coming to the program for two years.

 “There’s always a delicious lunch, and there’s always a surprise in the lunch bag, so it’s just something that’s keeping their spirits up,” said Delmage. 

“It’s making a huge difference for a lot of people who would normally be in this room at the program and just can’t be here anymore.”

Socialization, whether in-person or over the phone, is essential to seniors’ well-being, said Brenda Fowler, Executive Director of People for a Health Community. When you get to be over 80 you’re vulnerable to the things that erode your spirit and resilience and your self-esteem and self-confidence,” she said. 

“What reconnects you to the path of wellness and the path of being energized and living life to the full is social connection, and that’s what this program delivers. It’s loneliness that is the villain in this story, and it’s social connection which is the hero.”

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