In this episode, Sally speaks with Glenys Currie, Director of Quality and Risk Management at Banyan Community Services about her work with the Hamilton Seniors Social Isolation Plan (HSSIP) and its legacy. While the funded program, which ran for three years, ended in 2019, it has fostered relationships and positive impact that continue through the current COVID emergency.   

With over 25 years of experience leading community Glenys is an authority on the issues faced by marginalized and vulnerable persons, including an excellent knowledge and understanding of exclusion, isolation and loneliness. 

The Hamilton HSSIP project was started by organizations answering a call from Employment and Social Development Canada, through the New Horizons Fund, to build community wide population-level impact plans to combat seniors’ isolation.  Hamilton was one of 9 communities across Canada to receive funding from that original call.  

The Hamilton project was focused on connecting older adults in various ways: hospital connectors ensured safe discharge to community, community connectors sought out isolated seniors, peer connectors worked with fellow seniors to support their social connection to community. Five agencies and institutions participated in this network of connector services. As well, the Gilbrea Centre for studies in Aging at McMaster University worked to educate the community on the causes of seniors’ isolation, and the Hamilton Council on Aging connected all of these organizations to track progress and uncover opportunities.  

As Glenys explains, HSSIP underestimated the complexity of what seniors were facing: mental health challenges, substance abuse, food insecurity, precarious housing were all factors contributing to isolation that couldn’t be solved through relatively short-term services to seniors.  Even with those challenges, HSSIP achieved its goal of connecting 20% of isolated seniors, and on a systems level, the project has produced lasting benefits.   

The community learned more about the causes of isolation and supports for combatting it; some of the connector roles developed in HSSIP continued and have become part of regular service at hospitals in Hamilton.  

As Glenys explains, change at the systems level takes longer than three years, so the community is continuing to build on this work and foster their new relationships. The Seniors-At-Risk in the Community Collaborative (SARC) is one legacy of this collective work, and it connects 34 agencies and institutions together to share information, uncover opportunities and drive toward policy change.   

Glenys explains that government and other funders investing in community impact projects should invest long term. When crises like COVID happen, funding should be directed to experts in community who can ramp up their work quickly. Working collectively in the long term, as SARC intends, can reduce the fragmentation in community and make responding to crises and navigating to expertise more effective.  

Glenys credits staff at all of the agencies in Hamilton who have responded to the COVID crisis. Many people delivering services to seniors are seniors themselves, and they continued grocery delivery and social connection for their most vulnerable neighbours in a challenging time.  

Glenys suggests that collective community impact projects like these should work more intentionally at a systems level on inclusion, rather than focusing only on lifting individuals from isolation. There is a world of difference: don’t create programmatic dependency, work on preventing the need for short-term programs. Organizations working directly with seniors know what changes are needed at the system level around adequate income and food security, transportation and health care, and including these voices at tables of power, where decisions are made, will make our communities stronger.  

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