Council supports Lonely No More pilot program to help isolated seniors

·6 min read

NORTH PERTH – After a few changes to the motion during its meeting on Dec. 21, North Perth council was happy to support a Lonely No More pilot program which is set to be implemented this month.

Amy Gangl, interim manager of recreation, presented council with a report explaining the history of the program and how it would help local seniors dealing with isolation.

In 2018, a pilot study of the Lonely No More Program was initiated by the Gateway Centre of Excellence in Rural Health in Goderich with provincial funding. The program provides rural seniors with the ability to participate in a free phone-based, peer support program that addresses their need for socialization in a safe and protected space.

The program also provides rural seniors with a chance to take leadership positions within their community. Lonely No More consists of weekly teleconference calls and elder circles between isolated seniors, and facilitated by trained volunteers.

The program uses a three-pronged approach to combat social isolation using peer support, health coaching and system navigation.

Before participation, volunteers are provided education in the Lonely No More outreach model, elder abuse bystander engagement, resource navigation and health-coaching dialogues. This education enables volunteers to look for red flags which may indicate physical, financial or mental elder abuse or the need for system navigation support. Once a red flag has been identified, volunteers conduct one-on-one follow up conversations with those individuals outside the weekly call.

The pilot study ran from December 2018 to April 2019 in Huron County and has since been expanded in 2020. The program was successful, with 75 per cent of participants and volunteers stating the program had a positive impact on their lives, especially during the pandemic, and 94 per cent of individuals involved said they would recommend their role in the program to other community members.

Then the Gateway Centre started discussions with North Perth about initiating a pilot program.

To implement a six-month pilot program in North Perth, the municipality is responsible for the recruitment of senior participants, community volunteers and the development, approval and implementation of a program sustainability plan. The Gateway Centre is responsible for toolkit development, student support, training, coordination of the pilot program, and providing mentorship to North Perth staff for the sustainability of the Lonely No More program past the pilot phase.

Similar services are offered in North Perth by other organizations such as VON, North Perth Community Hospice, Community Living and the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Where those programs are more of a one-on-one telehealth format, the Lonely No More program is a social isolation-focused initiative with a group format allowing peer support. The program will collaborate with and promote other services in North Perth for seniors. Municipal staff will seek ways this program can complement what is currently happening, filling service gaps as identified.

The intention is to apply for funding to cover the costs of the pilot program but once the pilot program is complete, if the program continues North Perth would be responsible for the operating costs of about $20,000 annually for 60 participants and 25 community volunteers engaged in training and municipality costs.

“I think this is going to be an exceptional program,” said Coun. Matt Richardson. “The costs are minimal. I do know loneliness in our senior… population is a very significant concern whether it be lack of available family or lack of willingness to even talk with the elder people that I think at least trying to provide a little something would certainly be a benefit.”

Although Coun. Julie Behrns agreed “this is an absolutely amazing program” she had a few concerns she wanted to raise.

“My concern is that we do have several other agencies within the municipality that are doing similar (work) and (the report) didn’t talk about… if we are going to reach out to those organizations to try to coordinate it,” she said. “One of them may be interested in taking the lead as opposed to the municipality.”

Behrns also had a concern over the wording of the motion.

“My concern is that… it almost sounds like this is a given… and we’re going to continue to do this,” she said. “At what point does it even matter that we’re moving to do a pilot program because it says that we’re going to do a follow-up report, which I look forward to… but then it says we’re going to present a developed sustainability program for approval which implies we’re going to continue this program regardless of what the pilot program said.”

Behrns suggested they do the pilot program and have a follow-up report.

“In that follow-up report I want to see where we worked with the other local people within the municipality that are doing similar (work) and see what we can come up with as a North Perth solution because the further we move into health care and mental health issues – I mean quite frankly we’re not necessarily trained in all of that,” she said.

She suggested some of the other local service organizations are better trained and she is not sure that North Perth should be the organization that would be funding it.

Mayor Todd Kasenberg suggested changing the wording of the motion to read “for approval of council.”

Gangl asked if she could provide more detail to explain the wording of the motion because she said there has been discussion about the concerns Behrns raised.

“Those discussions have been amongst the staff and looking at the role of the municipality in this,” she said. “We also see the benefit of partnering within the community and that’s why we’ve had some of those discussions. We don’t have commitments from (community groups) so we have to go on an assumption that it would be held by the municipality at this point and that’s why we put in that wording.”

Gangl said that the Gateway Centre of Excellence’s goal is to provide a sustainable program and have partners to be able to promote that sustainability.

“They do understand that there is a possibility it may not (be sustainable) but that was their ask and their request about being part of the grant,” she said. “(I) respect the change council is suggesting, I just wanted to provide that background it was connected to and the reason behind that initial draft.”

Kasenberg said he was taking notes and would tweak the resolution to ensure it would reflect council’s interest in the pilot project.

“I completely agree this is a great program,” said Coun. Neil Anstett. “I have a little bit of familiarity with it as it is operating in Goderich and I’ve heard good things about it there.”

He said obviously with the return to lockdown in Ontario programs like these are more important than ever.

“Just touching on what Coun. Behrns said… the big thing for me is going to be the statistics around this,” said Anstett. “The pilot program is great but I think we’re going to need to show numbers and also the participation.”

He also agreed involvement from service organizations and groups will be important.

“There is no way we can do this all ourselves,” said Anstett. “I think that’s going to help us make the case this is something we can support long term.”

Changes to the wording in the motion allowing for council to make decisions about the sustainability of the program pending a report at the end of the pilot period were approved by both Gangl and council.

The motion was carried unanimously.

Colin Burrowes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Listowel Banner