Colleen Simpson started working with GEF Seniors Housing in 1994 and has worked at multiple sites all throughout the organization before landing at Cathedral Close, where she works as an Assistant Manager. One constant that she has noticed, right from her first position at the original McQueen Place, is that hoarding behaviour is prevalent in many seniors. While working at Central Services, former Director of Operations Greg Dewling suggested that Simpson join a group chaired by Sage Seniors Association looking at the problem of hoarding style behaviour.
In 2012, Simpson began working with the Edmonton Hoarding Coalition, a group made up of representatives from non-profit community organizations and people with lived hoarding behaviour experiences. The group’s mission includes looking more into hoarding behaviour, recognizing gaps in services and funding, identifying supports for clients, pinpointing the roles of community partners, and researching the statistics for community presentations. As Simpson explains, much of the information needed to properly address hoarding behaviours is severely lacking.
“Much of the data we rely upon for our research is actual US based because the Canadian research simply doesn’t exist,” says Simpson. “Hoarding behaviour as a condition was only recognized in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) in 2013. Much of the research and recognition of this as a disorder is new. Even the research in the US only started about 20 years ago.”
A few facts that are known about hoarding disorder are that older adults are three times more likely to experience the behaviour than younger adults, men are more likely to exhibit the symptoms where women are more likely to seek out help, and that hoarding tendencies begin between ages 11 and 15. As part of working with other agencies to gather data through surveys of reported cases, the group conducted a survey in 2016 that looked at 257 individual cases. The stats have been compiled into presentations for other organizations to help increase the awareness and knowledge of the issue. Though Simpson is proud of the work done in the surveys and being gathered by the Coalition, she also knows where the research falls short.
“The survey only covers reported cases of hoarding behaviour where individuals sought out help and accessed services,” says Simpson. “That leaves enormous gaps in unreported cases and cases where individuals didn’t seek help.”
Though there are other groups like the Edmonton Hoarding Coalition across Canada, Simpson points out that they are not consistent in other cities. She stresses that it’s going to be through the work of community focused groups that will spur more interest and better education around what constitutes hoarding disorders. Simpson explains that even some of her own assumptions from before her work with the Edmonton Hoarding Coalition has led her to inaccurate assumptions.
“I’ve made the call to support services about a hoarding issue and once the workers arrive, they tell me that’s it’s not a hoarding situation,” says Simpson. “Hoarding disorder is so much more than just accumulating things. It’s a whole range of behaviours that when combined, build to dangerous situations.”
Dangers with hoarding situations in the home include blocking electrical outlets and heating vents which can lead to fire, piles of possessions toppling over causing injury, and blocking essential spaces like kitchens and washrooms. For seniors, the issue becomes more hazardous as many live with mobility restrictions and require mobility aids to get around their apartments. There are support services available such as Sage Seniors Association’s This Full House program, which sees outreach workers assisting seniors work through hoarding issues and maintain healthier living environments, but often times the call for an intervention comes much later than it should.
The Edmonton Hoarding Coalition’s goals include setting up a directory of services for people living with hoarding behaviours, even beyond decluttering and waste management. Simpson points out home trades such as plumbers and electricians often won’t work in homes where hoarding is occurring. Finding the services that can help a person while living in a hoarding situation will be key to ensuring they can continue living with a good quality of life.
For Simpson, some of the most important impacts that the Edmonton Hoarding Coalition has had for her are working to change her own attitudes and assumptions and enlightening her as to what to look for when she suspects someone is living with a hoarding disorder. Most important, though, is ensuring she remembers that who she is talking with is a human being.
“We don’t identify people as hoarders, people are not the condition that they are living with,” says Simpson. “Our seniors living with hoarding disorder, or any other condition that may need services and supports, deserve to live with a good quality of life. Without the right kind of data leading us in the best direction, it can be hard to know what are the best steps to take. We’re hoping that the work with the Edmonton Hoarding Coalition will establish that data set needed to increase awareness and work towards building a community that has a better understanding of how to help people living with hoarding disorder.”
One of the most challenging clients Lynn Fraser ever had was her own mother-in-law. Fraser is a professional organizer and member of the Professional Organizers in Canada, all of whom have different specialties and areas of expertise. It was working with her mother-in-law that made her realize how important her work is for seniors.
“My mother-in-law was 94 years old and still living in her own apartment,” says Fraser. “When we finally convinced her to move into something more appropriate for her, we had a small window of time to get her ready to transition from a two-bedroom apartment to a 300 square foot lodge room.”
Fraser’s mother-in-law moved to Queen Alexandra Place three months after she was placed on the waiting list. Like many of the other seniors she has worked with in her practice, Fraser noticed that her mother-in-law kept a lot of things from over the years. She attributes this partially to the generation her mother-in-law was a part of, one who lived through the Great Depression, and also as a sign that the next, and often scary, part of life is coming up quick.
“For my mother-in-law, moving into a lodge was putting one foot in the grave,” says Fraser. “I remember that first day she was living in Queen Alexandra Place, I walked with her around the neighbourhood and it took a lot of convincing to really demonstrate that this wasn’t the end for her. In fact, it was opening a lot of possibilities.”
Decluttering as a general practice for anyone is reported to have a multitude of benefits ranging from clearer thinking, more time and improved energy to alleviating anxiety. For seniors in particular, Fraser points out that the benefits revolve around living more in the moment. She explains that older adults who hold on to objects tend to either attribute memories to them or plan to give them to family members eventually.
“They’re either living in the past or in the future and they’re missing being fully present now,” says Fraser. “Once the decluttering process begins, there’s a huge shift in people’s happiness. They can see more possibilities, it allows for more dreaming, and for seniors especially it’s the understanding that family and friends can come to visit and have a place to sit and eat. Especially as they’re looking to move into a smaller space, alleviating the pressure of where they will put all of their stuff suddenly opens up possibilities of all the things they can do when their grandchildren visit.”
Beginning the process of decluttering can be the most daunting part of the whole process. Fraser suggests that as soon as someone is on the list for a seniors lodge or apartment, the downsizing needs to begin right away. By beginning the process sooner, it becomes a set of smaller decluttering goals, as opposed to one large one that needs immediate and drastic action. Keeping up the conversation about all the benefits to their new space to keep it top of mind is important throughout the process. Fraser was able to practice some of the more practical tactics in downsizing with her mother-in-law.
“My mother-in-law was an artist, so she had this incredible collection of paintings,” Fraser recollects. “As a family, we worked with her to pick out her favourites and determined where each painting would go once she moved.”
Paring down collections is an important step in the downsizing process and Fraser stresses that it’s of the utmost importance that the person downsizing be the one making the decisions on what stays and what goes, if she is cognitively able to. Even with her mother-in-law’s clothes, Fraser was able to lean on her mother-in-law’s favourite colours (pink and purple) as a means of reducing the amount of clothing she had. Fraser explains that it’s being able to give options within reason that makes for a successful downsizing.
“The person downsizing has to be the one who chooses,” says Fraser. “You need to be respectful and work as a team. Keep reminding them of all they have to look forward to and talk about the things they love to do and how decluttering will help them be able to do those things. For my mother-in-law, I was able to talk about how many interesting people she would have to draw again. That really resonated with her and helped her along.”
Fraser recommends at times even using games to help with the decluttering process. One game she utilizes is identifying your clutter hot spot in the space and challenging the person to beat the clock in sorting and purging the pile. Another effective game can be found on the Minimalists website called the 30-Day Minimalism Game where a person gets rid of one thing on day one, two things on day two, three things on day three, and so on. Fraser also cites the Marie Kondo book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up as an effective text with practical and motivating advice. The most practical piece of advice in the text comes from a single question: “Does this bring me joy?”
For Fraser, there are actually eleven effective questions when deciding on what to do with an item:
- Does this bring me joy?
- Do I really need this?
- Do I need this many?
- Does it work?
- Am I using it?
- Will I ever use it or go back to it?
- Do I really care about it?
- Where am I keeping it?
- Can I quickly find it when I need it? (change to ‘find it quickly’)
- Is it worth storing or filing?
- Who am I keeping it for?
The last piece of advice that Fraser would give anyone looking to downsize or declutter is to envision the space that they want. How do they want it to look? How do they want it to feel? By creating that clear idea of what they want this space to be, it will continue helping that drive to continue the decluttering process.
“Staying focused is the hardest part of an already difficult process,” says Fraser. “Having another person there can both offer a lot of support and add some accountability. If they can stick with that vision, all the amazing benefits, the self-esteem, the happiness, the possibilities, all will fall into place no matter the size of space you’re living in.”
Every year, Sage Edmonton holds a free event to help seniors navigate all the different housing options available to them as their needs and necessities change with aging. The Seniors Housing Forum features presentations from housing organization experts, information sessions from public figures, and a tradeshow displaying the wide array of different supports and services that allows seniors to have an excellent quality of life.
“The Seniors Housing Forum aims to provide a wide range of information and resources for older adults to age well in their existing home, and to better understand the variety of options for seniors’ housing,” says Karen McDonald, Executive Director with Sage Edmonton. “All sessions at the Forum will be closed captioned to ensure they are accessible and participants will also enjoy a free lunch, coffee and tea, and door prizes.”
This year’s Seniors Housing Forum will be held on Saturday, September 23, 2017, at the Central Lions Recreation Centre (11113 113 St., Edmonton) with the tradeshow opening up at 9:00 a.m. and presentations beginning at 10:00 a.m. Presentations at the event include information on financial literacy, new home technologies that help seniors age in their community, and a panel discussion on alternative housing options that will feature GEF Seniors Housing CEO Raymond Swonek.
“GEF Seniors Housing is involved with the Seniors Housing Forum because we believe the event serves a huge need for Edmonton’s senior population,” says Swonek. “There’s a lot of information and choices seniors need to make as they age. The Seniors Housing Forum helps ensure that seniors are getting the best information right from the source and making sure their changing needs are going to be met while maintaining their quality of life.”
The information presented is relevant not just to seniors themselves but also their families, friends, caregivers, and anyone else interested in the ever-evolving landscape of seniors housing options. Last year’s event brought in around 1,200 people to explore the tradeshow and take in the presentations, looking for information on what housing options will best serve their own or their loved ones’ lifestyles.
“I always love presenting at the Seniors Housing Forum,” says Swonek. “Last year, presented on new housing models and introduce many of the new concepts we’re building into Sakaw Terrace to an audience that was interested and engaged. I always look forward to the seniors Housing Forum and am excited I was once again asked to present.”
Registration for the Seniors Housing Forum is now open and anyone interested is encouraged to contact Sage Edmonton directly at 780-809-8604 to register.
This is a story that was published in the August 2017 edition of Edmonton Prime Times. The editor was Maurice Tougas.
In the summer of 2015, GEF Seniors Housing opened Ottewell Terrace, welcoming more than 50 seniors to their new homes and over 70 children. On the main level of Ottewell Terrace, Primrose Place Family Centre, one of Edmonton’s oldest not-for-profit daycare centres, found its new permanent home. A staple in the East Edmonton community, Primrose Place Family Centre approached GEF Seniors Housing with the idea of building a day care in Ottewell Terrace.
Next door to Ottewell Terrace are two other GEF Seniors Housing buildings: Ottewell Manor and Ottewell Place. Where Ottewell Terrace is a completely independent living apartment, Ottewell Manor and Ottewell Place both offer lodge accommodations, which means a full recreation program for the residents. GEF Seniors Housing CEO Raymond Swonek points out that it didn’t take long to make the connection between the lodge’s recreation programs and the operations at the daycare centre.
“In no time, the residents at Ottewell Place and Ottewell Manor were interacting with the children,” says Swonek. “The residents love reading to the children, taking part in arts and crafts, and just spending time with them.”
Intergenerational recreation is a trend that is picking up. More seniors associations and youth organizations are teaming up with the intent of providing meaningful connections for the populations they serve. The science and research behind intergenerational recreation programs brings up many interesting benefits.
The benefits for the children involved with intergenerational recreation include improved academic skills, better social skills, decreases in negative behaviours, and increases in social stability. Children see an increase in self-esteem, problem solving skills, and an appreciation for seniors and aging when involved with these kinds of programs.
Where the benefits for the children revolve around their development, the benefits for seniors focus on their continued health. A 2004 study in the Journal of Urban Health shows that seniors burn 20 per cent more calories per week, experienced fewer falls, were less dependent on canes and other walking aides, and had better cognitive skills. Another study from 2003 in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and other Dimentias showed that older adults with dementia or other cognitive impairments saw significant improvements in their overall mental health during interactions with children.
The social and health benefits of intergenerational programs do not surprise Shelley Sabo, Community Animator with Sage Seniors Association. Her work on Sage’s Age-ing to Sage-ing program brought together seniors and youth in Edmonton’s Beverly neighbourhood. Activities included gardening with the Little Green Thumbs program, knitting and crocheting, organizing a back-logged school library, relaxation exercises, and helping out at school events.
“Seniors have so many gifts to share with the community and it is only a gift if it is given,” says Sabo. “This project created an opportunity for many seniors to share their gifts with their community and develop some caring relationships that benefitted both the seniors and the youth.”
Age-ing to Sage-ing focused its efforts in the Beverly neighbourhood because there are a high number of seniors and children who would greatly benefit from their company. Sage’s report on Age-ing to Sage-ing points out that some of Edmonton’s diverse neighbourhoods tend to have pressing social needs among seniors and youth including poverty, multicultural and intergenerational conflict, and declining community spaces. With a focus on recognizing that seniors have many talents, skills, and gifts they can share, Sage wanted seniors to realize that they still had so much to contribute to their communities, which was a new concept to many of the seniors who participated.
“The Beverly neighbourhood has so many strengths and it is important to keep their seniors in the community,” says Sabo. “One of the seniors involved with Age-ing to Sage-ing actually contacted Schoolboard Trustee Ray Martin and started a community conversation about turning the old Rundle School into a new intergenerational community centre. At the two community conversations hosted by the Edmonton Public School Board, more than 130 people turned out at each event to share their ideas.”
The seniors in the Beverly neighbourhood also saw some connection from the Abbottsfield Youth Project with the Love Grows Here program, which paired elementary school children with seniors living at Porta Place apartments and the Beverly Place lodge on an art project. The art piece was created over five sessions between the students and the seniors and saw a gala-style unveiling for the community on December 1, 2016.
Sabo sees the intergenerational programs all over Edmonton as much more than something to help keep seniors busy. At the core of every one of the programs has been the community connection that drives people to give something more.
“I remember one senior who was suffering from depression and she decided to take part in Age-ing to Sage-ing,” says Sabo. “For her, there was nothing better than going three blocks to her neighbourhood school where she had an opportunity to give something back.”
This is a story that was originally published in the February 2017 edition of Edmonton Prime Times.
Shanika Donalds knows better than most the harsh impacts that social isolation can have on seniors. Her role with GEF Seniors Housing as Community Supports Manager was created to help address the issue of social isolation in the seniors living in GEF Seniors Housing homes. For her, there is no such thing as a typical day. From one-on-one consultations to large-scale presentations during building resident meetings, Donalds and the rest of the Community Supports team work to find the underlying causes in the individual cases of social isolation and how to best work through those issues.
“One of our main operations as Community Supports is to help address seniors isolation in connection with quality of life, which in short is assessing if a person’s environment fulfills their needs,” says Donalds. “When an individual loses a partner or friends, the number of meaningful interactions declines, and this can include interactions with essential services like doctors and dentists. What we want to do is help those who are feeling isolated make those connections they need and raise their quality of life.”
Donalds and GEF Seniors Housing are just one group that make up the Pan Edmonton Group Addressing Social Isolation in Seniors (PEGASIS), a collective of seven seniors serving agencies operating in Edmonton. The group is coordinated by the Edmonton Seniors Coordinating Council (ESCC), which facilitates collaboration among seniors-serving organizations across Edmonton to address seniors’ sector issues in the city. Other organizations involved with PEGASIS include the Edmonton Southside Primary Care Network, Sage Seniors Association, the Westend Seniors Activity Centre, the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, and Drive Happiness.
Tim Henderson is the Community Connector and Project Manager for the PEGASIS project with the ESCC and his role is to connect all the seniors serving agencies and see where collaboration works best to help meet the needs of isolated seniors. He explains that this kind of collaboration is a lot of work and takes a lot of commitment and he’s here to help facilitate that collaboration through, “trying to bridge the challenges of government funding and accountability, different organizational cultures, external stakeholders, opportunities, and demands, and help to create a supportive environment for all seniors.”
Reducing social isolation on its surface seems like a straight-forward goal, Henderson points out. But once you start breaking down everything that encompasses social isolation, the solutions become much more complicated.
“Research has shown how destructive social isolation can be, and with the social and economic emphasis on individual success with which we live, the risks of, and ballooning costs related to, isolation are enormous as our demographics change and our population ages,” says Henderson. “Aging is something that we are all doing, and ensuring that we get to age well is a collective endeavour. I can’t think of anything more satisfying than working with a group of people to create a population shift in thinking and living.”
Part of the collaborative effort in PEGASIS is ensuring that all the seniors serving agencies in Edmonton know about each other and how their services can help each other and, ultimately, help the seniors who are in need. For example, if a community coordinator with Sage Seniors Association is working with an individual and discovers they can’t get around to see their friends or make it to medical appointments and its affecting their quality of life, that community coordinator with Sage can connect with Drive Happiness to make sure the senior has access to transportation.
“The challenge is honouring the individual agencies and projects while facilitating their learning and capacity to work together in new ways, rather than simply sharing information about what they are doing,” says Henderson.
Henderson also has a clear view as to what success looks like for PEGASIS. “There are two parts to success for PEGASIS,” he explains. “The first will be the real collaboration of the seven partners working together to map out and create a meaningful and workable plan to reduce social isolation now and in the future. The second part will be the expansion of the group collaboration so that we truly are the pan-Edmonton group addressing social isolation of seniors.”
Donalds explains that her team, with their specific mandate to serve seniors living in GEF Seniors Housing buildings, has its collection of challenges. Residents and tenants living in GEF Seniors Housing buildings pride themselves in living independently, so for many asking for help feels like submitting their independence.
“It’s actually the opposite where we’re working to ensure that the residents can keep living independently and have access to all the essential services they need while still having those meaningful connections,” says Donalds.
But for every bit of pushback that Donalds may see from the people she works with, she just as often sees seniors immediately acknowledging they need help and embracing what the Community Supports team has to offer.
“One of my proudest achievements is when I get a call from a senior who saw a poster or a brochure and they took the initiative to seek out help,” says Donalds. “Then, it spreads by word of mouth where seniors tell each other they should call us and that it’s a good thing and we really help.”