Project helps low-income B.C. seniors, a growing population with health, housing woes

New pilot project brings activities and support to isolated low-income seniors, to keep them at home longer and out of care homes and hospitals

Lorraine Ahearne and Terry Kennedy at Granville House program run by Whole Way House which is a non-profit that supports seniors in the DTES and has recently partnered with B.C. Housing to expand and offer four additional low-income buildings with on-site programming and support services for seniors. PHOTO BY NICK PROCAYLO /PNG
September 09, 2022

By Lori Culbert, Postmedia

Read the original article here.  

Just inside the front door of Vancouver’s Granville House, an affordable-housing building for seniors, the common room bustles with residents playing games, drinking coffee and laughing.

Less than five months ago, the room was almost always locked and dark, and these neighbours didn’t know each other beyond a brief wave in the hallway or shared ride in the elevator.

That changed when a pilot project brought services and activities into the building in April, transforming the dormant lounge into a vibrant living room where the low-income, elderly residents gather daily for a friendly smile or a helping hand.

“It gets me out of bed and it gives me something to do. I know somebody’s going be down here and I can talk to people,” said Lorraine Ahearn, 73. “I have a different outlook now on life. So, everything’s better. Everything.”

Ahearn has lived in this B.C. Housing building, on the north shore of False Creek, for 14 years, but says having daily companionship and organized events led her to make major changes in just a few months: She stopped, with the backing of her doctor, taking her antidepressant medicine. She started exercises to reduce the pain in her frozen shoulder. And she gets out of bed early in anticipation of the day, rather than languishing alone until noon.

“We’re one big family, we all help each other. They’ve helped me a great deal,” she said.

Whole Way House, a non-profit agency, has been granted provincial funding to operate these new drop-in programs in four B.C. Housing buildings in Metro Vancouver that have tenants who are seniors or have disabilities. The one-year pilot project started in April, but already appears to be boosting spirits.

“I think Whole Way House came as a lifeline to many, many residents,” said Jen Evans, the agency’s team lead and tenant support worker at Granville House. “We replace the family that some of them don’t have.”

Lorraine Ahearn (left) and Jen Evans at Granville house. PHOTO BY NICK PROCAYLO /PNG

The drop-ins, run out of underused amenity rooms in the four buildings, not only address the isolation and loneliness many seniors battled during the pandemic, but also offer different types of assistance so they can continue to live independently — something that is crucial given our aging population.

Seniors are expected to make up one quarter of all B.C. residents by 2030, but there are already long waiting lists for care homes and hospitals are overcrowded because, in part, there is often nowhere to send elderly patients who need limited assistance but don’t require hospitalization.

There are thousands of low-income seniors living independently in non-profit housing units in B.C., but most do not come with support. Some lose their homes as they age because they don’t have anyone to help them organize financial affairs, keep their places clean, or stay healthy, said Jenny Konkin, Whole Way House president.

“When they moved in, they were able to live independently, but as they’re aging they might be losing some of those abilities. But there’s no system in place to support them, and so we saw seniors were falling through the cracks,” she said.

“Twenty-four per cent of our homeless population in Metro Vancouver are seniors, and a lot of them are first time homeless.”

Since 2017, Whole Way House has provided services and activities to low-income seniors who live in Veterans Manor, a non-profit building in the Downtown Eastside, and Konkin has been trying for years to get the funding to expand this model.

When COVID hit, her agency was contracted to deliver meals to hundreds of seniors isolating in a variety of affordable-housing buildings, giving her staff more insight into the wide array of challenges some residents faced.

So Konkin asked, again, for additional funding and this time was awarded the pilot project, which is being evaluated by a Simon Fraser University gerontology professor, Atiya Mahmood.

Her staff pinpointed four buildings where they saw the most need and, in April, SFU researchers conducted a survey that asked 239 residents about their physical and emotional well-being.

Among the SFU findings:

• 82% found it hard to make ends meet and half were worried they could lose their homes.

• Roughly half said that they didn’t feel close to people, that they wouldn’t have anyone to help them if they were sick in bed, and that nobody would find them within 24 hours if they fell down with an injury.

• two-thirds didn’t have any services or activities to give them a sense of purpose or meaning in life.

• More than half felt downhearted and blue, and a slightly larger percentage said they struggled with their health.

Whole Way House used these survey results to plan some of the general services offered by the pilot project: help with money management and personal paperwork, running errands, finding medical services, conducting wellness checks, and planning outings and exercise programs.

Whole Way House president Jenny Konkin in the community garden at Alexander House. PHOTO BY NICK PROCAYLO /PNG

In an email, the Attorney General’s Ministry, which is responsible for housing, said “to better support the housing and support needs of low-income seniors,” it has provided a $420,600 grant to fund the one-year pilot project by Whole Way House and its evaluation by SFU. The email said the money ends on March 31, 2023, and did not address the possibility of making it permanent.

It costs Whole Way House roughly $8 a resident per day to provide extensive support services in a building such as Veterans Manor, where tenants are typically more frail Downtown Eastside residents. For this pilot project, where less-comprehensive services and activities are offered several days a week at the four buildings, the cost is estimated at just $1 a day per resident, Konkin said.

This is a relatively cheap option to keep seniors in their homes, she argues. According to Konkin’s research, it costs roughly $1,500 a day for a hospital stay, $250 for a care home, and $145 a day for the services offered to homeless people (based on the Metro Vancouver Homeless Count report.)

At each of the four buildings in the pilot project, Whole Way House staff offer some unique options tailored to the needs of the residents who live there.

At Chelsea Tower, which has 47 units in Mount Pleasant, there is a focus on regenerating the social connections residents lost during pandemic restrictions, with birthday parties, games and kaffeeklatsches.

In the much-larger Chelsea Terrace, with 209 rooms in Burnaby, there is an affection for dressing up for afternoon tea, playing bingo, and arts and crafts. Chelsea Terrace tenants, who represent a wide range of ethnicities, also ask for help with paperwork pertaining to pensions, taxes, and immigration issues, added Whole Way House operations manager Sonora Szoczei.

At the 81-unit Alexander House, on the east side of Gastown, there is a community garden, seated dancing classes, and services to help a large number of non-English-speaking ethnic Chinese residents navigate government systems.

“And then with the additional attacks happening in Chinatown, we saw a lot more fear as well. So just people not getting out to do their usual routine of grocery shopping,” Konkin said. “We really wanted to address that, to make sure people felt comfortable, safe.”

Tracy Lam and Sam Chiu play mah-jong at Alexander House. PHOTO BY NICK PROCAYLO /PNG

Through Whole Way House translator Tracy Lam, Alexander House resident Sam Chiu, 83, said staff have helped him communicate with B.C. Housing and he appreciates that all signs in the building are now in English and Chinese.

He is also one of the tenants who eagerly attends day trips to destinations such as VanDusen gardens, Bloedel Conservatory, and Deer Lake Park.

Janette Roberts, 77, a member of the Ktunaxa First Nation in Cranbrook, doesn’t take part in the outings, but likes to sit quietly and do the communal jigsaw puzzle in the Alexander House lounge. And she appreciates that Whole Way House staff helped her get new hearing aids and settle a big bill she received from her telephone provider.

“I find that the workers are very helpful,” Roberts said. “When I was injured, they went to the drugstore to get pills for me … They knocked on my door to give me meals or just to see how I was doing.”

The four B.C. Housing buildings are run by non-profit agencies, but the pilot project allows Whole Way House to be an outside third party to help residents with concerns they would not feel comfortable discussing with their landlords. It also allows staff to check up on tenants to, ideally, avoid problems that could lead to their housing being compromised.

“If they start hoarding or they’re not able to clean their units anymore, it puts the non-profits in a really difficult position, especially if the person starts to become a danger to themselves or others. Leaving the stove on, causing floods, forgetting the bathtub is running, those types of things. So we’re able to be on site, with more and more eyes on the clients,” Konkin said.

Resident Janette Roberts at Alexander House. PHOTO BY NICK PROCAYLO /PNG

At the 84-unit Granville House, the average age of the residents is older than in the other buildings, so staff have helped them with continuing to live independently, said Evans, the team leader.

One 94-year-old woman, for example, was upset by the notices she received for failing to pay her rent, and Evans helped her sort out the problem with her bank. Another resident, who filed his tax return late, needed her help to regain $3,500 in lost guaranteed income supplement payments, she said.

“Just saying that you’ll help, that’s all the money in the world to me,” resident Jim Sheasgreen said of the assistance and camaraderie he’s experienced since Whole Way House arrived.

“It pulled me right up to the surface. I wasn’t very sociable at all.”

Sheasgreen had lived in Granville House for 19 years but only recently learned his neighbour Terry Kennedy’s name. Now they frequently sit together, playing games and drinking coffee.

“I sit here and get beaten on a regular basis when I’m playing cribbage,” Kennedy adds with a hearty laugh.

“This Whole Way House, when it came about, was the best thing that’s happened because it helps your sanity. You get to be seen (rather than) sit in your room in solitary confinement all the time.

“They’ve got to keep this going. Don’t shut it down.”

Jen Evans and Jim Sheasgreen at Granville House. PHOTO BY NICK PROCAYLO /PNG