Toronto library employees reach out to seniors through new service

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 5: A man walks past masked statues outside the Toronto Public Library on College Street W., (Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Pandemic lockdown has cut off a connection to the community for many seniors across the country. Many libraries have had to scale back resources and services, which were once a lifeline for many elders.

But some libraries across Ontario are making an effort to reach out to this demographic through phone calls. It’s an active effort meant to check in on those aged 70 and older, to help them navigate available services remotely, as well as have a friendly chat.

Kim Huntley is the lead of the project in Toronto, which is called the Toronto Public Library seniors check in calling service.

“COVID hasn’t been kind to our senior customers, many who are vulnerable and now, socially isolated and disconnected from their family and their friends and their library services,” she told Yahoo Canada. “So we thought this would be one simple way to connect with them to let them know we’re thinking of their wellbeing and answer any questions they had about library services. Or just to have a friendly chat.”

She adds that many senior library users don’t have access to the internet, so it’s up to the library to help connect them to resources or help answer any questions they might have. But the chats aren’t limited to one thing — topics might span from favourite films they’ve watched recently to the weather.

“We just want to let them know that we’re thinking of them,” says Huntley.

The first library customers to start receiving the calls back in the spring were members registered to the Home Library Service, which delivers library materials to members who are homebound due to age, illness or disability. From there, they gathered a list of library customers aged 70 to 100, organized staff, gave them training and started putting out calls.

The staff doing the calls are those that would normally work at the information desk when libraries are open.

“It’s rewarding for them,” says Huntley. “They’re able to provide the services they normally provide, just over the phone.”

Emoke Gall is a librarian with the North York Central Library in Toronto, and one of the staff putting out the calls. She says oftentimes the elderly clients are surprised that the person on the other end of the line isn’t trying to sell or promote something.

“Once they realize it’s a friendly call, they’re really appreciative and happy to chat about what they’ve been up to and they always talk to me about how they’re using the library, whether it’s open or not,” she says.

The Toronto program recently finished contacting customers aged 80 to 100, and now are starting to reach out to those in their 70s, of which there are about 13,000 members.

Huntley says the Toronto program was started after they learned of similar programs happening throughout the province in cities like Windsor, Markham and Hamilton. Training involved providing scripts to the staff, as a means to give those calls a jumping off point, as well as a list of resources to draw attention to, like e-books and music available, and resources for COVID-19, self-help and wellbeing. And while life may feel different for many during the pandemic, library staff wanted to do their part to help make things as accessible as they could.

“That’s what public libraries do,” says Huntley. “They connect people with information.”