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Newfoundland and Labrador

‘A circle of care’: Can neighbours and the community help Newfoundland and Labrador’s aging population grow old at home?



ST. JOHN’S, NL — It wasn’t long after Brian Noonan moved into his home in Gander in September 2021 that he began helping out his new neighbor.

“Whenever I’m tending my lawn and I know her daughter is away, I’ll go over and make it my mission to mow her lawn just so she doesn’t have to,” Noonan said in a phone interview.

It was never asked of him, but it’s something he feels he must do.

“She’s in her early 80s and still quite capable, but in the back of my mind I don’t want her to be out there on the stairs or slip or fall. If I do my driveway outside, I can do her footsteps and her driveway,” he said.

“Especially with an older neighbor, I feel it is my duty to want to help out of respect. It’s the right thing. If I can make her day a little easier, I can sleep better at night too.”

This kind of volunteer help is what Gail Wideman, interim associate dean of graduate studies and research at the School of Social Work at Memorial University, calls interim support. She wrote her doctoral thesis about it.

“They’re not formal supports and they’re not family, somewhere in between is what I call intermediate supports,” Wideman said.

“… with an older neighbor I think it’s simply a duty to want to help out of respect.”
– Brian Noonan

aging in place

An ideal system would allow people to “age in place,” says Wideman.

This means that the social and healthcare systems take care of the health, housing and physical needs of older adults, while family and friends provide emotional and social support to keep them safe and independent in the community for as long as possible.

“But the reality is that we are fighting here. Our health and welfare systems are struggling to keep up with the idea of ​​aging,” she said. “And in Newfoundland, we have such a high proportion of older adults living in rural communities without those welfare and health care systems that it’s becoming increasingly problematic.”

Gail Wideman is Interim Associate Dean of Graduate Studies and Research at Memorial University's School of Social Work.  Gail Wideman with her grandchildren Harper (center) and Mackenzie Wall.  - contributed
Gail Wideman is Interim Associate Dean of Graduate Studies and Research at Memorial University’s School of Social Work. Gail Wideman with her grandchildren Harper (center) and Mackenzie Wall. – contributed

This is where people like Noonan and the informal network he has with his neighbor’s son and daughter make the difference.

Wideman suggests building a network of volunteers who are in contact with a social worker should a problem, large or small, arise.

“It could be three or four neighbors providing that person with a meal, or helping clear snow, helping change lights, so[one person]doesn’t feel like they’re alone out there trying to help this older adult ,” explains Weitmann.

“She has someone like a social worker who is supervising who she can turn to and say, ‘I’m in trouble. I need you to help me find some support for this person.’”

With good supervision, it could keep people out of long-term care for longer, Wideman says.

“Now a neighbor says they feel like they need to go to a nursing home because they can’t read their mail because their eyesight has deteriorated. The neighbor says to a social worker, can I help her?” said Weitmann.

“The CNIB goes in there and provides her with a magnifying glass or other tools. It is that network and a deliberate creation of that circle of care.”

No longer common practice

Sharing the burden of caring for a neighbor used to be very common, Wideman said.

“It’s happened in Newfoundland and everywhere. In the past it’s happened more organically,” she said.

“But with depopulation and emigration, that burden of support increases to the point where people are afraid to come forward to help because they just feel like they can’t handle it without support, so they’re catching.” better not because they don’t know where they’re going to end up.”

There is so much discussion about acute care right now that it can be difficult to shift the discussion to those in the community who need just a little support to stay happy and healthy in their homes, Wideman says.

Recognizing people like Noonan and his neighbor’s children as partners in a continuum of support has to happen, she says.

These small interactions can mean a lot to both parties.

“That’s good for me too. It gives you a warm, comforting feeling in your soul,” says Noonan.

“Whenever I see her out in the garden, I always stop and have a chat with her. You can see her face light up.”

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