Students at Sheridan College have found creative ways to connect with older adults during the pandemic, and to combat social isolation and loneliness.
The Putting Food on the Table Project is a collaboration with Sheridan Centre for Elder Research (CER) and community partners Food for Life and Community Development Halton. It was funded by NSERC’s COVID-19 response College and Community Social Innovation Fund to address food security (having access to sufficient nutritious food) among older adults in the Halton region (an area in southwestern Ontario).
The project’s goal was to learn about the nutritional and social needs of older clients of Food for Life during COVID-19. Food for Life is a food rescue organization in Halton, which rescues healthy unused fresh food from grocery stores, bakeries, restaurants, and farms and redistributes it to neighbours in need. When the pandemic emerged in March of 2020 they had to abandon their old method of delivering food to older adults. This included bringing fresh food to the lobbies of 16 senior’s buildings in the region for individuals 65+ with rent geared-to-income units. The pandemic-proof method allowed the residents to “ shop the market” in a contactless delivery system where individual packages were developed for delivery to residents’ units. We began this project to learn whether the current offering could be improved and learn what other nutritional and social needs the older adults experienced during the pandemic, given that recreation and social programs across buildings had been suspended.
We surveyed the 700 older adults living in seniors’ buildings receiving the individual packages to learn about whether it was meeting their needs. We also asked how they were doing during COVID in terms of their socialization, recreation, mood, and perceptions of the virus. We not only learned about what food support they need, but the severity of their decreasing social lives due to the pandemic as well. In fact, 40 percent felt that their well-being was worse than before the pandemic and the majority said they did not feel comfortable leaving their homes. We developed and distributed a list of local services and programs for older adults during the pandemic to connect package recipients to socialization and health services designed specifically for them. However, we wondered if there was an opportunity for community members to get involved. We asked groups within Sheridan College and in the wider Halton community about whether they wanted to get involved in connecting with the older adults and show their support. We were overwhelmed by the response.
40 percent of seniors surveyed felt that their well-being was worse than before the pandemic and the majority said they did not feel comfortable leaving their homes.
Sheridan’s Honours Bachelor of Music Theatre Performance students arranged and performed digital cabaret numbers to include food package deliveries. As part of one of their classes, they learned about the Art of Cabaret, and arranged and performed songs for the buildings to share their talents and warmth with their neighbors. They organized these individual songs into a full online performance called “Food for Thought”.
It was an unconventional ask, but Sheridan’s Music Theatre faculty and students jumped at the chance to get involved. As challenging as this pandemic has been on everyone, this project has been an opportunity for people to come together to create the type of world they want to live in. Students and older community members alike are finding value in making those connections and finding a sense of community, even during the pandemic lockdowns.
In addition, Community Development Halton galvanized community organizations, facilitated a letter and card writing campaign through local schools and libraries, and delivered homemade blankets, dishcloths, and art to the seniors’ buildings.
We developed solutions to enhance food security, address social isolation, and bring joy to people’s lives, in a time where it is much needed
Finally, the project team recruited Sheridan Honours Bachelor of Craft and Design – Textiles students to sew face masks to include in the packages. Two textile students designed and sewed masks for all residents, to include in their packages. These masks were designed with comfort and safety in mind, providing both good protection and breathability. Colour and pattern choices avoided reds and jarring patterns.
Through the partnership with Food for Life and Community Development Halton, the team at the Centre for Elder Research has been able to capture the nutritional and social needs of older adults during the pandemic. They have also developed solutions to enhance food security, address social isolation, and bring joy to people’s lives, in a time where it is much needed.
Later in the spring, the project team will survey Food for Life clients once again to learn about the impact of the enhanced food packages and identify work that still needs to be done. Social isolation and loneliness existed before and will exist beyond the pandemic. There is always a need to find strategies that address the issue and ways to collaborate with community partners creatively.