How one Montreal organization pivoted during the pandemic to respond to seniors in crisis

The NDG Senior Citizens' Council is balancing long-term impact with crisis management

Why It Matters

As the coronavirus pandemic exacerbates risks for the most vulnerable populations, seniors are experiencing poverty, food insecurity, and mental health crises while facing social isolation. A Montreal organization says that for some seniors in their community, it’s an issue of life and death. This is our second story in a series with Innoweave.

At 95 years old, Muriel Fishman has lived through a lot, including a World War and the Great Depression. 

“The main thing in my life was poverty,” she says. “There was no food, no clothes. I was wearing boots made of felt.”

Still, despite living through monumental world events, Fishman, who lives in Montreal, has never seen the world come to a standstill the way she has with the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s unbelievable, because we weren’t faced with these problems. Life went on and relationships went on. You met friends and you went out and you did things but we don’t do that now. The whole [world] is upside down.”

Fishman is an avid reader who is “always lost in a book,” which has helped pass the time during the pandemic. While she prides herself for maintaining good health, she relies on organizations including NDG Senior Citizens’ Council for support with grocery shopping and transportation to medical appointments. 

“I lean on myself. Other than the NDG Senior Citizens’ Council, there is nobody,” says Fishman, who lives alone and has no surviving family members in Canada. 

“They take me [to appointments] and they bring me back … I’m very appreciative,” she says. “They are making every effort to help people who are lonely or live alone and it’s wonderful.”

NDG Senior Citizens’ Council (NDGSCC), a non-profit community organization, works to boost quality of life for low income older residents of the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood and Montreal West. For over four decades, the organization has been providing services that lessen social isolation and economic disadvantages for seniors, and they’ve never been busier than during COVID-19. But unlike Fishman, many of their members are struggling to cope with isolation during the pandemic. 

Sheri McLeod, executive director of NDGSCC says their members also deal with functional limitations like mobility and cognitive issues, and experience socio-economic disadvantages including low literacy, language barriers, and precarious work. Prior to COVID-19, members would gather at NDGSCC’s day centre to eat meals, exercise, and socialize. 

Due to their level of isolation, McLeod says members would “have to be encouraged to talk and interact. They aren’t comfortable being around other people.”

When COVID-19 hit, and NDGSCC closed its doors along with much of the world, the team was particularly concerned about how lockdowns would impact their members, who were already struggling with isolation. “It threw us into major concern,” McLeod says. “This is the population most at risk. Everyone was panicking. We said, we have to do something — and we have to do it very quickly.”

Within days, the organization’s staff and volunteers mobilized to begin calling every single member to check up on them and assess needs. NDGSCC, which has a democratic, no-fee membership, has 600 active members, all above 50 years of age.

According to McLeod, at least half of the members they called were in psychological distress — people who were “in a lot of fear, watching the news all the time and very, very anxious.” 

At least half of the members they called were in psychological distress — people who were “in a lot of fear, watching the news all the time and very, very anxious.

The level of isolation and fear had a tremendous impact on NDGSCC’s members. “We’re used to seniors who are struggling emotionally, but [this was] the level of distress where we were getting one or two calls every week of people who were suicidal. When someone says ‘I can’t take one more day of this, I want to die,’ the level of responsibility that we feel for them as an organization [is immense],” McLeod says “When we lose track of them and can’t reach them on the phone, we call the police right away. You don’t know… if they just collapsed or even passed away.” 

Managing the intensity of these phone calls and being confronted with highly distressed individuals was difficult on the MDGSCC team, who worked long days and some of whom were less experienced in dealing with these issues, according to McLeod. 

“[I was] trying to gage how much longer people could keep going,” McLeod says.. “At one point we closed for a week because people were very burned out. We had to shut down and give people some breathing room.”

To alleviate the team, NDGSCC created a partnership with Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital whose clinical team operates a telehealth service and is equipped to support people experiencing psychological distress. NDGSCC has referred 60 seniors to the hospital’s phone line for ongoing support. 

Lara Evoy, a consultant with Garrow&Evoy who supports organizations to better understand and measure their social impact, has been working with the leadership team at NDGSCC for over a year, says they have faced tremendous challenges during the pandemic. “They’ve been working now for months with not a lot of respite. They’re feeling overwhelmed and teams are exhausted. They’re losing staff to taking time off because they are either physically ill or need a break mentally.”

NDGSCC received a year of coaching focused on clarifying their desired impact and another six months of coaching focused on quantifying and measuring their impact. 

And Evoy says it has been difficult for them to balance their desire to make a long-term impact with their need to respond to urgent crises during the pandemic, particularly as some issues that have come up, like a need to support their members with food security, are outside the organization’s typical wheelhouse. “It’s challenging because the program and strategies they had put forward to achieve impact — many of those they can’t do right now,” Evoy explains. “You can organize your activities around building a sense of [community] and strengthening people’s network right now because people are unable to attend events.” 

It has been difficult for them to balance their desire to make a long-term impact with their need to respond to urgent crises during the pandemic.

“I’m trying to function in parallel where I’m managing the crisis and I’m still focused on the impact work,” McLeod says. In addition to supervising the team at NDGSCC, McLeod also focused on tracking emergency funding opportunities from the government and donors, and adapting reporting for current grants. 

In addition to distress calls, the team was inundated with a number of calls about everyday problems their members were experiencing, like broken TVs. “They’re very low income. This was all they had. This was their only source of communication and entertainment. They’re locked in their apartment, no friends or family,” McLeod explains. 

Like Fishman, many socially isolated seniors have no Internet access. While it was beyond the organization’s scope and usual responsibilities, McLeod says they bought and installed TVs, as a way to support their members who were dealing with unprecedented levels of social isolation. During the summer, NDGSCC started getting calls about broken air conditioners and took the same approach of purchasing AC units and installing them in members’ homes. “It was astonishing the things that were happening that people were having to deal with. They were very basic but when you’re in the midst of all this [a pandemic], it’s just fundamental,” Evoy says. 

Evoy, who is currently coaching 30 organizations says it’s these examples that demonstrate how NDGSCC quickly “transformed their whole organization to respond to COVID needs.” When members told the organization’s team they were anxious about how they would grocery shop as they couldn’t leave their homes, NDGSCC ventured into food secure programming for the first time. 

They developed a partnership with a Montreal grocery store whereby members could order groceries over the phone and receive a subsidy. NGDSCC soon learned that some seniors were unable to place their order due to anxiety around food, due to factors including language barriers or dietary concerns. So the team stepped in to liaison between their members and the grocery store. “We are not a food security based organization. Our focus is always social isolation. I’m not sure if we can maintain this,” Sheri says. Currently, NDGSCC has plans to keep the program running until March 2021. 

In addition to developing new services, NSGSCC continues to operate some programming, such as their tax clinic which “was a huge burden on them but needed in the community,” according to Evoy. 

During times of crisis, Evoy says organizations need to prioritize their efforts, and in the case of NDGCC, they “intuitively know where to put their effort.” McLeod keeps focused on the organization’s mission to combat social isolation. “It’s truly the most devastating thing at this point, this feeling of loneliness and of being separate.” To combat this, NDGSCC sent care packages to their most isolated members with items like hand-knit dolls and crossword puzzle books.

“Some people sit alone and think no one cares. Then this stuff shows up [care package] and they were so overwhelmed with a sense that maybe they matter after all.”