Staying social in a pandemic can be a tricky business.
When the South Cariboo shut down after COVID-19 struck this spring, it meant no more social groups, fall fairs or even coffee klatches that had become the norm for the area’s seniors – the largest population in B.C. after Qualicum Beach. More than 51,.5 per cent of residents here are over 55, an age group considered highly vulnerable during this pandemic, and more are moving here all the time.
“Most of our seniors have had to hunker down like everyone else around the country,” said Ralph Fossum, president of the Age Friendly Society of the South Cariboo. “For seniors it might be even more challenging because outside activities are rather tricky. At the seniors centre they play pool, cards, carpet bowling, cribbage but clearly they were shut down as well.
“The number of activities the seniors can externally go to are very limited right now and that has an impact on their wellbeing.”
Staying active and connected are deemed the keys to healthy aging, according to B.C.’s Ministry of Health. Research suggests people with strong social networks are deemed to be more active, feel happier, and are more supported, while people without strong social networks may become isolated, leading to reduced mental and physical health, as well as depression.
Stress is also a factor, said Fossum. The Age Friendly Society is a registered BC Society with the purpose of “supporting people to age safely, enjoy wellness and to continue to live and participate fully in their communities.” But with physical distancing measures in place, it was unable to hold its usual events, which at times drew as many as 350 people.
The society, which includes members from Lac La Hache to Clinton, has reached out to members through email, but few are calling back, raising concerns that some may not be eating properly, exercising or getting outside for much needed Vitamin D.
“If people are not socializing then they are isolating. Being with others is a healthy thing,” Fossum said. “We tell seniors to ‘get out with your friends’ and we’ve had to tell them the opposite. When we see people isolating we see them going downhill.”
Elsie Urquhart, a longtime volunteer in the 100 Mile area, can attest to that. Urquhart recently lost her partner of 13 years, John ‘Lynn’ Merrick. Merrick had been in the Fischer Place Care Home when COVID hit, curtailing Urquhart’s twice-a-day visits to nothing. There were were no more bingo games, no home-cooked meals, no goodbye.
“When they said I couldn’t come in anymore that was really hard,” Urquhart said, wiping away tears. “I do find it lonely since I lost him.”
But she and others in the South Cariboo are proving to be a resilient lot.
Urquhart spent her summer with family – growing a garden, catching salmon and canning – and is back to volunteering with the reopened Stemete7uw’i Friendship Centre, Free Store in the basement of the St. Timothy Anglican Church and the Legion’s poppy campaign. She also keeps social by bowling at the Big Country Lanes, where she brings her own balls and shoes so she doesn’t have to share equipment.
“I’m not a great bowler but I love coming to meet people and just visit with friends,” she said. “We have fun and that’s the main thing.”
Others set up lawn chairs in parks to read together or visit, while the 100 Mile Cruzers continued to meet in unsanctioned gatherings outside A&W on Friday nights or did drive-bys past the seniors’ centres. Lac La Hache resident Ron Boehm sold his handmade frames at the Heritage Market at 108 and still meets up with his band, the Cariboo Country Ramblers, but expects it will be a quiet Christmas.
“With this thing starting up again it’s hard to get out,” he said, noting he hasn’t seen his grandchildren since the pandemic began. “We’re keeping our circles a little smaller. We’re more careful then we used to be.”
At the Stemete7uw’i Friendship Centre in 100 Mile House, which reopened on Oct. 1, all the regulars have returned but only six people are allowed in the building at one time. The Centre, open Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 10-2 p.m., primary functions as a drop-in centre where people can come relax, having a coffee in a warm and inclusive atmosphere. A meal is also offered, usually soup.
If they need clothing they can access free clothes in the Free Store in the basement of the St. Timothy Anglican Church next door, while referrals are provided to anyone who needs help.
“The people who come to our centre were missing our services. and missed that connection,” said Rob Diether, program host and coordinator. “I think we will see more people when words get out.”
The Age Friendly Society will be inviting input from seniors to find ways to keep active to reduce stress, especially with winter coming and a new legion of retirees who have moved here this summer to flee the rat race – or the pandemic – in the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley.
Realtors note there is little property inventory left in the South Cariboo, particularly in Interlakes or South Green Lake communities.
“A lot of people are finding the South Cariboo now to be a good alternative solution. We are the becoming the new destination for living and the word is space,” Fossum said noting even the Okanagan is appearing too crowded these days.
But he acknowledges the growth “comes with some challenges” especially in rural or lakefront areas as people get older.
“People want city services and we don’t have those things. Buses are good example. There’s no transportation, no bus service so if they can’t drive they are isolated. We have good number of doctors but for much of our medical service we do have to go out of town.”
Fossum recommends seniors get some small weights or rubberized bands used for stretching and do it watching TV or the news to keep their muscle strength and bones strong.
“If you can find even one or two people to get out with and for a walk is important. I encourage people who don’t have that social group to phone a friend and challenge them to go for a walk with you,” Fossum added.
“I play cards with some people that works for some small groups. We’re being alert to what we can offer. We go too much into our heads and we’re not keeping our brains active. If we can challenge our brains, do a puzzle or play games. Any new hobby keeps us active.”
The Age Friendly Society can be reached at 250-395-4375 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org