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Experiencing Homelessness: If We Don’t Help Each Other Who Will?
By Juanita Mora
On a rainy August afternoon at the local coffee shop, I was met with the warm presence of Dorothy Kestle. Dorothy is an Older Persons with Experiences of Homelessness (OPEH) advisor for the SSHRC/CMHC partnership project, “Aging in the Right Place” (AIRP). I had the privilege of getting to know her and hearing first-hand of her experiences with the shelter and supportive housing sector. I learned that despite her many adversities, she has always advocated for the health and social support of older adults, and values family, community, and security.
One thing that was immediately clear to me about Dorothy is her love for her family. She is a mother of four, and a grandmother of five. Although she is close with her family now, this was not always the case. When her children were younger, she went through challenging times with her partner at the time, who struggled with addiction and was abusive to her. She spent many years fighting to have full custody over her children and because of that, her children were forced to live and experience the cracks of the foster care system.
Some years ago, Dorothy and her son were evicted from their home after they were abandoned by someone she trusted, who took her share of the rent. After this, Dorothy’s only option was to depend on shelters and supportive housing. Stemming from her own struggles with homelessness, she finds compassion for others in a similar position. In fact, she has been advocating for older women and older adults long before she became one herself. When she was younger, Dorothy volunteered with the Women’s Institute Group in London, Ontario for many years. She enjoyed planning events and gatherings for the seniors. One that stood out was a craft sale that showcased the projects created by the older women of the group. The craft sale and subsequent dinner fundraisers allowed them to purchase a van that facilitated the transportation of seniors to events and their appointments. Dorothy was proud of this, as it brought the seniors closer to their community, which is crucial as older adults increasingly experience social isolation.
Over the past four years, she has seen an alarming increase in seniors receiving inadequate healthcare within the shelter and supportive housing system. She explained that it is easy for seniors to be forgotten through the tangles of the healthcare system, from facing the long wait of referrals to specialists, to difficulties accessing affordable medications. Dorothy also witnessed these gaps in resources and care when she worked in a palliative home in her younger years. As a result of this, advocating for accessible and equitable healthcare is also very important for Dorothy.
Most recently, Dorothy’s passion for community-building led her to organize and facilitate the food program at the supportive housing she lives in. She stepped up when the individual running the program left, and proceeded to run the program by herself, feeding 45 people every day for over a year. Little by little, more people started to join and help with the program. Eventually, the program became a place where the seniors could gather and socialize. Dorothy’s initiative brought a sense of community to the seniors in the supportive housing, which is something she highly values. She says it gives her a “peace of mind” knowing that seniors feel a little less alone.
It is in Dorothy’s nature to always think of others, and ways in which she can support them. She reminisced on her childhood with fond memories of her grandmother. She explained that her grandparents took her in the day she was born, due to a tough relationship with Dorothy’s mother. Her grandmother was her number one supporter and role model. It was her grandmother that taught Dorothy to help others. She supported Dorothy during her schooling, taught her how to whip up a delicious meal, and encouraged her to work with seniors by example. She recounted on her grandmother always volunteering to drive seniors to their appointments or delivering a warm meal. It became clear to me that Dorothy’s advocacy for the health and social well-being of older adults stems from her loving relationship with her grandparents, and the admiration and respect she felt as they raised her.
Although seniors have been part of her life and work for a long time, as an older adult herself, she is now more than ever curious to know what the future holds for older adults. She has hope that through the AIRP project, the quality of life of older adults who are experiencing housing issues will improve. Being able to contribute to the project as a lived expertise has brought her enjoyment and fulfillment. With the knowledge she obtains from the project, and from her own experiences, she can provide other older adults with information, advice, and helpful connections.
When I asked her what “aging in the right place” means to her, Dorothy emphasized that “seniors need security.” I learned of some distressing experiences she went through that created a sense of insecurity. Fortunately, the staff at her supportive housing dealt with the situation, and the aggressive individual that caused these distressing experiences was removed. To this day, Dorothy is grateful that there are people at her supportive housing that were able to address the situation and reinstate that feeling of security and control that she is always advocating.
When asked what advice she has for researchers who work with older adults, she said that above all, it is crucial to be compassionate and gentle with seniors. She emphasized that every person has their own story, with their own battles that have led them to experience homelessness as older adults. More often than not, older adults would simply appreciate having a conversation, a moment to connect with another person.
From my conversation with Dorothy, I learned that caring and advocating for older adults is not only a task for a day, a month, or even a 5-year project, but rather it is a composition of several small acts of kindness over a lifetime. The lived experience of Dorothy and other OPEH is critical and valuable to not only research, but to advocate and initiate change and implement pragmatic solutions. We must take Dorothy’s example as she did from her grandmother and advocate for the wellbeing of older adults, as her grandmother would always say, “If we don’t help each other in life, then who will?