Our elders could use a helping hand—and intergenerational friendships rock—so check out these volunteer opportunities
BY KATIE SMITH
As a professional nanny, homestay host and single mom raising three children, I spend a lot of time with kids and teens. While I love children, I also relish the time each week when I can take a few hours out to volunteer with people at a totally different life stage: seniors. I’ve done everything from reading to vision-impaired elders to playing violin in a residence to visiting a retirement home with babies for the residents to coo over and cuddle. I love tapping into the gentle energy and wisdom of elders.
There isn’t one standard experience for aging, and many Canadian seniors lead active lives, but mobility, health concerns and children growing up and relocating geographically can impact the opportunities some older people have to socialize. It can also affect their autonomy to varying degrees. For some, new financial pressures come with aging, as a lower retirement income has to stretch to cover rising costs of living—and for more years than ever before as our life expectancy steadily creeps up. The National Institute of Aging’s national seniors’ strategy reports that more than 600,000 seniors in Canada live in poverty.
Volunteering with this population can help ease the effects of aging. And in the GTA, you can give back in so many different ways, from leading museum tours to fostering a hospitalized senior’s dog to partnering up for social dancing. So don’t walk—foxtrot down to one of these four amazing organizations running volunteer programs that benefit seniors in the GTA.
Music for the mind
Nostalgic for your mixtape-making youth? The Music Project could use your help! Volunteers help create playlists on iPods for people with dementia. Not only do the songs bring joy, but research suggests that music can provide emotional and behavioural benefits for people with dementia, as the part of the brain responsible for musical memories isn’t damaged by the disease. For someone who may not recognize loved ones anymore or remember much about their current life, songs can bridge the gap with their past.
In North York, horse-loving volunteers can give supervised support to a senior with dementia, as they bond, groom and care for a horse, on the five-week Horse Program. Researchers have found that horse therapy has a positive short-term impact on some of their symptoms, by lifting their mood, reconnecting them with positive memories and helping them better regulate their emotions.
Appreciate art? You can volunteer to take a senior with dementia and their caregiver on a tour of the ROM, AGO or Aga Khan Museum. These outings stimulate dementia patients and give them a break from being at home or at medical appointments. They also link seniors to culture that they may well have enjoyed before their diagnosis. And chatting with volunteers is often a welcome break from the routine for caregivers, too.
Get on my lawn
This neighbourhood organization’s garden-sharing program matches green-thumb volunteers with seniors who need help maintaining their lawns, backyard fruit and vegetable crops. Together they decide what to grow and then share the harvest. With more and more young Torontonians living in condos, this program is win-win for both volunteer and senior.
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More than a meal
While the drop-in breakfast and lunch program isn’t limited to seniors, it attracts a significant senior population, who enjoy a nutritious free meal together, cooked up by kitchen volunteers, who then come and sit down to chat and eat lunch with clients. Volunteers chat with attendees about their interests and needs in an informal way, and then can connect them with other programming at The Stop, including arts-and-crafts sessions, legal advice and settlement services.
Take a walk
A challenging part of aging can be losing the ability to care independently for beloved pets, because of temporary or long-term health concerns. Through ElderDog Canada, volunteers across Peel, Toronto and York regions are matched with seniors in their community who need help with walking, grooming and day-to-day care of their dogs, as well as rides to vet appointments. Not only do the volunteers get to know a senior, but they also get to hang out with a furry friend and enjoy extra exercise.
Elderdog volunteers also provide short-term dog-fostering services for seniors in hospital or rehab. These folks also take the dogs to visit their owners, to cheer them up and keep the bond alive. This program is perfect for volunteers who don’t have the time or resources for their own dog but would appreciate their fix of canine cuddles.
Fruit and friendship
The Share 365 programprovides fresh fruit and vegetables each month to seniors and other people in need. Volunteers deliver produce and, at the same time, relieve clients’ isolation and connect seniors to other local services, such as low-income dental programs and food banks. “The program provides me with nutrition, but it is the relationships that sustain me,” says one of the seniors who participates.
If the biggest dance trend of the ’90s was your thing, there’s a line dancing program at Birchmount Bluffs that matches volunteer dance partners with seniors. Classes take place weekly and provide social and physical activity for participants, some of whom are regularly active and some of whom have barriers to activity due to limited vision and mobility. Volunteers help with registration, set-up and take-down, and have the opportunity to bust a move, too. Charleston pivot! Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle!
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