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Winnipeg Free Press

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University of Manitoba medical students are doing their part to help the province's senior population combat the blues of social isolation through a volunteer program that pairs seniors and students for weekly phone calls.

Kaleigh Ducas-Mowchun, one of four U of M organizers, says the program is designed to combat the risks associated with social isolation for seniors by facilitating both lasting social connections and medical literacy.

"Many of us are beginning to get a feel for how difficult social distancing can be and, unfortunately, this is a daily reality for many older adults," Ducas-Mowchun said in an interview Monday.

"We were aware that with social-distancing restrictions in place, many seniors in the community would be at increased risk of social isolation during the pandemic. This is particularly true for seniors who may not be as tech savvy, or whose regular social programs have been suspended because of the pandemic, or who are otherwise homebound, especially those who don't speak English."

The partnership wasn’t borne out of the COVID-19 crisis: the idea started at the University of Toronto in 2019, where medical students began pairing up with elderly patients for weekly, in-person visits to combat social isolation among older populations.

According to research from the federal government, an estimated 30 per cent of seniors are at risk of social isolation, which is defined as low quantity and quality of contact with others.

Under the added physical-distancing measures of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U of T volunteer program shifted to over-the-phone visits, and began expanding to campuses across the country.

Ducas-Mowchun and team members Ann Ding, Nebojsa Oravec and Kara Frejuk, kick-started the Manitoba chapter just two weeks ago; they have already gathered 50 volunteers from the medical school. Those students will be paired with seniors referred to the program by health-care providers, Ducas-Mowchun said.

The team is working to connect students with seniors based on language preferences (including sign language), schedules, and specific needs of each client. Ducas-Mowchun expects phone calls will begin by the end of this week.

The aim is to provide participants with both company and COVID-19 resources and information.

"We hope that we can prevent older adults from unnecessarily visiting hospital emergency departments and COVID assessment centres, therefore reducing their risk of exposure," Ducas-Mowchun said.

When the pandemic eases and social-distancing measures relax, Ducas-Mowchun said she's hopeful the program will be able to transition from phone calls to in-person meetings, in order to keep building relationships.

"The idea is that students-senior pairs are able to build hopefully a sustainable connection, which is so important to creating meaningful bonds between students and older adults," she said.

"We realize that social isolation continues to be an issue among older adults and is not limited to the pandemic."


Julia-Simone Rutgers

Julia-Simone Rutgers

Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.

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