When COVID-19 reached British Columbia this past spring, Norma Taite, who's in her 80s, hunkered down in her South Surrey home, ready for her busy social life to shrink.
But a new initiative to keep seniors in South Surrey and White Rock connected and engaged from the comfort of their homes has prevented that from happening.
And Taite, a long-time "dabbler" in the arts, has experienced something of a creative renaissance along the way.
Since May, she and a small group of seniors in South Surrey and White Rock have taken part in an intimate, weekly art class conducted over the phone every Monday morning. The class is a part of a new project called Seniors' Centre Without Walls (SCWW).
"Maybe I'm a new Grandma Moses?" Taite joked, referencing the American folk artist who only began painting at 78.
Like interactive radio
Modelled after similar programs elsewhere in North America, SCWW offers local seniors an opportunity to participate in numerous phone-based presentations and activities that mirror programming one might find at a seniors' centre.
Among many options, participants can join a book club, follow an exercise class, stay up-to-date on Japanese news (one of few non-English programs offered) or tune in to You be the Judge of That!, a program where participants collectively determine a verdict for real-life court cases — all through their telephone line.
SCWW, which launched in April, is a project from the Surrey Intercultural Seniors Social Inclusion Partnership (SISSIP) and is partially funded by the federal government.
Edwin Chau, who oversees SCWW, said the project was already in the works before the pandemic arrived. But these isolating times have given it even more purpose.
During one art class CBC News joined, three different participants told the instructor the same thing: "We need you every day."
For Chau, making the program accessible was always key.
After a person signs up for a certain program, all they have to do is pick up the phone when it rings at the scheduled time, press a number and they've joined the call.
Simplicity is important for the art program, as well. During one of the first classes, the instructor asked everyone to sketch a plant outside a nearby window using whatever tools and material they had lying around.
"It doesn't matter if it's good or bad," said Chau. "It's the opportunity to have that release, that artistic outlet during this time."
Analog vs. digital
Ahead of each class, Chau physically mails all the participants a poster detailing what to expect that week.
Claire Moore, who teaches the class alongside another artist, says the analog nature of the program may come off as romantic to some, but it's deeply practical.
At least one of the women in the class — which hovers around six members from week to week — doesn't own a computer or a television.
"You are forced to reckon with: how do you live in this world if you don't have any form of [digital] technology?" she said. "The only way is to use the systems that we all regard as archaic."
Moore has taught art for years. Though she expected the phone to be the main challenge this time, she said there are other variables involved.
For instance, two participants are visually impaired, including Taite, who's now legally blind after being diagnosed with age-related macular degeneration (AMD) nearly a decade ago. The ocular condition leads to the severe blurring of one's centre of vision.
"When I retired I thought: 'OK, I'll do this and that,'" Taite said.
A former art student with experience using clay, she had originally hoped to tap back into her creative side a few years ago, "however, health and fate got in the way."
Added Taite with a laugh, "so here I am, painting at home with a telephone instructor."