Supporting older adults throughout the COVID-19 pandemic

Friendly Neighbour Hotline celebrates one-year anniversary

Suzanne Graves recalls feeling spurred to action when the pandemic hit one year ago. Upon hearing that the organization she had been assisting was temporarily closing its doors to volunteers, she was in search of a new role she could perform at home. She wanted to help those in need.

Thanks to a referral, the Toronto-based lawyer contacted Friendly Neighbour Hotline, a partner of the organization with which she had been volunteering and a product of University Health Network’s (UHN) OpenLab. Composed of 16 team members with various backgrounds, OpenLab is a program that transforms healthcare delivery through creative solutions.

The hotline connects older adults in low-income housing with volunteers who deliver groceries and household essentials to their doorsteps. After training in March, Suzanne was answering calls in April and inputting orders.

“It was amazing to feel that I could help a group of people who were very isolated and particularly hard hit, especially at the beginning of the pandemic. It was just a great opportunity,” Suzanne says.

The idea behind Friendly Neighbour Hotline was initially discussed by members of OpenLab on March 13, 2020. When chaos and profound uncertainty descended upon Toronto and much of the world, the team knew many older people were in a vulnerable position, being at higher risk of severe disease. It was unrealistic to expect older adults, especially those with physical health issues, to leave their homes and wait to purchase items in long lines where physical distancing couldn’t be guaranteed.

OpenLab mobilized swiftly. On March 23, 2020, the phone line was activated and people began calling. One year later, almost 25,000 older adults have been served and close to 1,600 volunteers have been engaged. About 700 volunteers are currently participating.

Suzanne, who has since become a manager and is responsible for triaging orders, is one such volunteer. Alnasir Jamal is another.

Similar to Suzanne, Alnasir was seeking a volunteer position when his work as a video technician was suspended at the onset of the pandemic. A story he stumbled upon steered him toward Friendly Neighbour Hotline, and by early April he was delivering goods in Scarborough, Ont.

“I had a lot of time on my hands, so I was looking for the right opportunity,” Alnasir says. “I don’t have a background in nursing or any area that allows me to help with one’s health needs. A service related to food delivery – that’s what I was looking for.”

Alnasir says he was doing two or three deliveries per day at the start of the pandemic. Now that his work has resumed, he manages one or two deliveries per week. The OpenLab team’s willingness to accommodate volunteers’ unique schedules has been an incentive for him to continue, he says. The gratification associated with the role is another motivation.

Friendly Neighbourhood Hotline volunteers Alnasir Jamal and Suzanne Graves.
Friendly Neighbour Hotline volunteers Alnasir Jamal [L] and Suzanne Graves [R]

More than just food

Knowing that he’s brought food to an older person who most likely wouldn’t have been able to attain it otherwise is satisfying for Alnasir. It’s a sentiment Suzanne shares.

“It’s been so great to help, even in a small way, get some emergency food to those in need, or connect them with a food bank or agency that might be able to offer emergency support,” she says.

Suzanne and Alnasir stress the significance of the hotline, with Suzanne sharing a story about a client she spoke with who hadn’t had food in two weeks before calling. They also emphasize the social interaction it offers – a much needed relief to isolation.

“It’s important for the obvious reason in that seniors need food, but they also need connection, and this is a way to connect with people,” Suzanne says.

She adds that volunteers are the only people with whom some clients in low-income areas speak each week. The thought of the service ceasing operation gives her pause.

“Some of these seniors have not left their apartments for a year. It’s heartbreaking. Some of them have really deteriorated, both physically and mentally, as a result of the isolation and their lack of ability to be in the community. I worry, sometimes – what if this service didn’t exist? How would [they] manage?”

Alnasir says frequent communication on deliveries has fostered new friendships. Specifically, he discusses his exchanges with a man to whom he delivers food. This man provides updates on his day-to-day activities through conversations he and Alnasir have through his screen door. Alnasir also details his interactions with a woman he says sometimes calls him directly, bypassing the hotline.

“It’s nice to be in contact with the same people. I find that I’m quite chatty with certain seniors, and there are some who actually want to chat more than place an order,” he says through a laugh.

Verbal exchanges aren’t possible for Souloui Kong, who’s in her 90s. Souloui’s daughter, Jessica Lo, has been calling the hotline on behalf of her mother, whom she says is nearly deaf and has developed mobility issues. Jessica worried about Souloui at the beginning of the pandemic as she often walked to grocery stores on her own. Now that she’s discovered Friendly Neighbour Hotline, Jessica’s concerns are somewhat assuaged.

“My mother is getting old. She cannot walk far for food anymore,” Jessica says. “She cannot do the things she used to do, and I felt very bad and really scared [earlier in the pandemic]. It was confusing, but now that I can call the hotline, I feel happy. My mother is happy, too.”

In a post-pandemic world

Alnasir and Suzanne agree that happiness is widespread across the people who rely on the hotline. They also say the necessity of the service preceded the pandemic and will remain after it’s declared over.

“I’m glad [Friendly Neighbour Hotline] started during the pandemic, however, I think the pandemic only illustrated the need for it. This isn’t solely a pandemic-related issue. It’s an issue about access to food and goods, and the need for more support,” Alnasir says.

For Suzanne, COVID-19 has exacerbated existing disparities. “These seniors always had food insecurity. They always had challenges with mobility or underlying health conditions, and the pandemic made those worse. It put a spotlight on a need that was always there – a need that will still be there in the future,” she says.

Alnasir says the hotline’s simple design and ease of use have resonated with volunteers and clients alike, which he feels contributes to its chances of operation post-pandemic. Keeping the phone line open would be ideal for Jessica, who exclaims, “I hope it lasts forever!”

Suzanne says she would be remiss if she didn’t champion the service. “It’s a very well-run program, and it’s been a privilege to work with [Friendly Neighbour Hotline],” she says. “It would be really beneficial if it could continue.”

Continuing to serve this community is what the hotline is doing. The latest venture engages volunteers to go door-to-door and help older adults in low-income housing register to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. The technical complications tied to signing up are sidestepped with the assistance of a volunteer. Further, the initiative sets out to bring the vaccine directly to the doorsteps of older people, avoiding any physical challenges potentially encountered at a vaccine clinic.

The volunteers’ familiarity with these low-income areas, as a result of the deliveries made in the last year, makes them well-suited to the task. Their ability to speak 39 languages is a bonus.

Thank you to the donors who have supported Friendly Neighbour Hotline and the volunteers who make it possible.

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