Struck by ‘loneliness’ of seniors in pandemic, N.B. student launches matchmaking program

At 85-years-old, Brenda Trafford is well known along the southeastern part of New Brunswick, from Sackville to Murray Corner, for her colourful outfits, yellow car and bright jewelry. She is a tireless volunteer and a prolific maker of crafts.

But even for a self-described “active senior,” COVID-19 restrictions have been tough.

“I do have my days when I’m at home and have been there for too long and haven’t seen a single soul, and it does get gloomy,” said Trafford.

Enter Hannah Crouse, a third year student at Mount Allison University in Sackville, whose eyes were opened in the spring to the needs of seniors like Trafford.

Crouse was awarded the Loewen Health internship at the Port Elgin and Region Health Centre. In April, her plans were to work with patients at the centre but when the pandemic hit, that all changed.

Instead Crouse began working with community groups and one of her first assignments was delivering food to seniors in and around Port Elgin.

Isolation and bare cupboards

Wearing gloves and a mask, Crouse was invited into the first house she visited by the elderly woman who lived there alone.

“I put the groceries away and then she started crying and crying, saying how sad she was and how no one had come to visit her since COVID started, and that was like, three or four months in,” said Crouse. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Hannah Crouse said delivering food to seniors over the summer gave her the inspiration for her program. She said the first woman she visited began crying and said no one had come to see her since the pandemic started. (iStock)

Not only was the woman lonely, but her cupboards were nearly bare.

“I was like, ‘I can’t leave this poor little lady crying,’ so I sat and I played some cards with her and I just spent time with her.”

With more deliveries to make, Crouse carried on, and found loneliness at every stop.

“It was every senior that I visited, and I mean every single senior that I visited,” she said.

That night, Crouse came up with the idea for her program that pairs university students with seniors. The goal is for the students to visit their seniors once a week and share a meal.

‘I was hers and she was mine and that was it’

Crouse put out a call on social media for student volunteers from Mount Allison and was overwhelmed by the response, receiving double her goal of ten.

She invited the seniors and students to a garden party earlier this summer, and then played the role of matchmaker.

In the end, she paired 18 seniors with 20 students, and Crouse said many friendships have blossomed, including her own friendship with Trafford.

To kick off the program, seniors and students met for the first time at the Westford Nursing Home in Port Elgin. In the end, 18 seniors were paired with 20 students, and Crouse said many friendships have blossomed. (Submitted by Pam Van Egmond)

“I knew when I met her in the yard that there was more than a little spark,” said Trafford of her first meeting with Crouse.

“We chatted a lot, we compared tattoos,” Trafford said with a laugh. 

“I was hers and she was mine and that was it.” 

The feeling was mutual.

Crouse said she immediately decided, “Oh my gosh, I’m stealing Brenda.”

Brenda Trafford said she felt a spark from the moment she met Hannah Crouse. (Tori Weldon/CBC)

Loneliness a big concern for seniors

While the eight week program is nearly over, Crouse already has plans to ask for feedback, make adjustments and do it again.

She said there are plenty of students interested and she’s raised the $4,000 required to pay for volunteers’ gas and food costs and to cover miscellaneous things like a new pot or pan for a senior who might not have one.

“The students are going out of their way to spend that extra time or to do that one extra thing for their senior,” said Crouse.

“You can tell that they really, really enjoy it and it’s something that they’re passionate about.” 

Pam Van Egmond, senior navigator for the group Nursing Homes Without Walls, has been proudly watching the program develop.

Van Egmond has helped Crouse to match the students and seniors and has supported the idea from the beginning.

Nursing Homes Without Walls is a pilot project based in Port Elgin that serves about 150 seniors in southeast New Brunswick who live rurally.

Senior navigator Pam Van Egmond, left, and Terissa D. Salmon, senior navigator assistant run Nursing Homes Without Walls in Port Elgin, N.B. More than 150 seniors in southeast New Brunswick are registered with the group, which helps seniors stay in their homes as long as it is safe. (Submitted by Pam Van Egmond)

Its mandate is to keep seniors at home for as long as they want to remain there and can do so safely.

Van Egmond said Crouse’s program has benefited everyone who’s been able to take part.

“We do hear from the seniors how they love it. So it is a program we definitely want to continue,” she said. 

Trafford agrees. She hopes Crouse’s project is expanded province-wide. She said her biggest concern as she ages is loneliness, and she thinks other seniors feel the same.

“If they’re anything like me, as far as wanting to know what their future holds, I think they could take a great deal of comfort in the fact there’s someone they can call.”

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