Volunteers making a difference for seniors

Heather Killen
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By Heather Killen

The Spectator



Volunteers are helping to bring community back into the lives of seniors who are living in long-term care facilities.

Staff at Mountain Lea Lodge and the veteran’s unit in Soldiers Memorial Hospital say that while their mandate is to provide residents with the best medical care, they also want to ensure the residents feel they are home, rather than living in a nursing home.

Alexis Hannah, recreation coordinator at the veterans’ unit at SMH, says that while staff does what it can to offer a range of activities for residents, it’s the many visitors coming to the unit who help put a sense of community back in the nursing home.

Volunteer visitors of all ages accompany the residents on outings, help with recreational activities such as baking, games, and classes. The activities are largely planned around the interests of the residents, she says, so woodworking, music, and cooking are an important part of their routine.

She added that she tries to give them the same opportunities to choose their activities, as they would at home. One of the harder adjustments for some seniors is giving up a much-loved pet.


Fish and Felines

The facilities have resident fish and felines, but dog visits are mainly carried out by volunteers. Diane Moore and Bob Geub have been taking their St. John therapy dogs to the veteran’s unit for 13 years. All combined, Riley, Papi, Shadow, and Otto have made well over 200 visits to the facility.

Riley and Shadow visited the facility a few weeks ago and before Riley was even out of the car, he was barking with excitement and ready to head towards the main door. As soon as they were inside, he settled down and went about his rounds with a wagging tail. The dogs look forward to their weekly visits with residents, and so do Diane and Bob.

“It’s unbelievable what a dog can do,” said Diane. “It breaks the ice and opens up conversations with people, brings them out.”

She added that their visits help break up the monotony and give the residents new people to talk with each week. Over time, they’ve gotten to know the residents on the unit and look forward to chatting with them each week.

Even the residents who don’t care for dogs will often come out of their rooms to chat, while the ones who are missing their pets seem to look forward to the furry facetime they get with the dogs.

The St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program started 10 years ago as a pilot program in Ontario and now reaches thousands of people. Dogs are carefully tested and regularly vet checked in order to be eligible for this program.

The program gives residents a chance to visit with the volunteer and the dog, as well as touch, pet, stroke and/or cuddle the dog.  The regular visits offer gentle contact with the dog and seem to brighten the day.


Mountain Lea Lodge

At Mountain Lea Lodge in Bridgetown, volunteers are also active in providing art, music, and science classes; while others assist residents with gardening and outings and visits on special days like Halloween.

Neil Cook, administrator at Mountain Lea Lodge, said that in the past people tended to see long-term care facilities as ‘homes for the aged’ and that these facilities were somewhat isolated from the community, but this idea is slowly changing.

While these facilities are home to people nearing the end of their lives, the focus is always on living rather dying, according to Cook. Mountain Lea Lodge is leading the way in providing a model of adult programing that could be adopted at other facilities in the province, he says.

Thanks to the contribution of Jim Bent, its former recreation director, and many dedicated volunteers such as Len MacDonald, the facility is building up a strong reputation for its innovative adult programming.

Three mornings a week residents gather in the activity room for various classes led by former teachers like MacDonald. His science and current events classes are extremely popular with residents.

Each week he packs a full house in the activity room where residents listen to his lessons and take part in exercises aimed to keep the minds active.

“Learning never ends,” said Kim Bowen, director of recreation. “We have residents who will only come out of the rooms for science class.”


Organizations: Soldiers Memorial Hospital

Geographic location: Ontario, Bridgetown

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