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Seniors service agencies stepped up during COVID-19: United Way study

United Way of the Lower Mainland has released a study on how community agencies kept older adults safe at home during the pandemic.

‘Rising to the Challenge: How B.C.’s Community-Based Seniors’ Service Agencies Stepped Up During COVID-19’ was commissioned by the United Way’s Healthy Aging Office.

Done in partnership with the Community Based Seniors Services Leadership Council, the study was undertaken by Dialogues in Action, who gathered data to measure the effectiveness and responsiveness of the province-wide, community-led response to support seniors during the pandemic.

“The experiences of living through a pandemic have shown us that, with the right supports, community agencies can rise to the challenge,” said Kahir Lalji, provincial director, United Way Healthy Aging.

“We can strengthen vital connections with each other, with government policymakers and funders, and through other partnerships in the public and private sector. Finding new patterns of collaboration, seeking out partnerships across jurisdictions, developing relationships that reflect the diversity and dynamic nature of our communities – this is the future.”

‘Rising to the Challenge’ offers insight into the role played by the community-based seniors serving sector (CBSS) sector, in, the United Way says, “meeting the needs of the public when it is recognized and properly resourced by all levels of government and other funding bodies.” 

The report identifies four key challenges and opportunities:

  • A system-wide strategy is needed to identify and connect with the most vulnerable seniors.
  • The pandemic revealed the digital divide. Many agencies mobilized and got devices and training to users, but there will continue to be a digital learning demand for seniors.
  • Volunteers are essential to the CBSS sector. Many volunteers are themselves seniors, so there was an uptick in the number of middle-aged and younger adults who stepped in early during the pandemic. Going forward, agencies will need to find and retain a more diversified cohort of volunteers and staff.
  • Partnerships and collaborations played a critical role in the sector’s successful response to the pandemic, but partnerships don’t just appear out of nowhere; they must be built and nurtured. Time and resources are needed to develop new and innovative partnerships.

Marcy Cohen, co-chair of the United Way’s CBSS Leadership Council, said these agencies “are embedded in their communities, and because they know their communities so well – and care about them so deeply – they threw all their heart and energy into this effort.” 

She added, “While many of these groups work together informally in their neighbourhoods, it was a government-funded, community-coordinated response to the pandemic that brought everyone together in such an organized and effective way.”

The study includes individual and group interviews with over 100 staff, volunteers, and partner organizations, eight focus groups and a survey. 

It features case studies about successful partnerships and stories from seniors themselves, some of whom talk about the heartbreak they encountered during the pandemic. 

The Rising to the Challenge report is available here

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