Shifting gears: Ottawa West Community Support takes services ‘on the road’ to help seniors

Two volunteers load a van with food boxes on a snowy day in Ottawa.
OWCS staff fill the van with deliveries on a snowy day in Ottawa. Photo courtesy of Ottawa West Community Support.

By Matthew Horwood

In order to continue providing over 3,500 seniors in Ottawa with wraparound services during the pandemic, Ottawa West Community Support (OWCS) has dramatically changed the way their programs function.

Jennifer Lalonde, executive director of OWCS, said the non-profit “hasn’t been the quickest to adopt technology and do things differently,” but COVID-19 necessitated a switch to online and physically distanced programming. 

“We’ve really tried to keep the activities going, we’ve just shifted to a virtual and one-on-one, in-person way of doing things,” Lalonde said. 

OWCS started out in the basement of Parkdale United Church in 1977, with “one chair and one phone, connecting seniors with people that could help them with services,” Lalonde said. The organization was founded to provide practical services to all “elderly persons in need, regardless of race, colour or creed.”

Over the years, OWCS has expanded to serve elderly persons and those with physical disabilities through a range of wraparound services. These include programs such as Aging in Place, which provides a variety of services to seniors living in 11 Ottawa community housing apartment buildings; Wheels to Meals, that delivers homemade meals to seniors and their foot care clinic.

When the first shutdown began in March, the OWCS made over 1,500 calls to clients to check in with them. Lalonde said they have since expanded their telephone assurance program, reaching around 300 seniors a week, up from approximately 20 clients a week in previous years.

The non-profit has also taken much of their programming “on the road” in order to keep seniors safe, Lalonde added. Instead of having 20-60 clients coming into the centre every day, volunteers will visit the seniors’ homes to keep them company. The OWCS has also modified their Adult Day Programming so that group activities like bingo, chair exercises and guest speakers have also been moved online through Zoom or conference calls. 

“We’ve tried to shift our programs and do as many different things as we can,” she said. “That includes delivering client activity packages that include puzzles, activity worksheets, and colouring books, which have been a huge hit with clients.” 

A volunteer fills boxes with food at Ottawa West Community Support's office.
An OWCS staff member fills boxes with food. Photo by Amy Bevilacqua/OWCS.

With clientele primarily 80 years of age or older, Lalonde said it was challenging to adapt initially but the pandemic necessitated an almost overnight shift to virtual programming. They have worked together with local agencies, such as Rural Ottawa South Support Services, to give iPads to clients and help them connect to the online services.

The OWCS typically makes over 15,000 drives each year through their “robust” transportation program, Lalonde said, with six volunteers driving clients to medical appointments, shopping centres and grocery stores. With medical appointments dropping off significantly during the pandemic, the drivers were primarily helping clients to acquire groceries. 

But for the safety of clients, the OWCS decided to switch to a bi-weekly delivery of food hampers. With support from Rural Ottawa South Support Services and Western Ottawa Community Resource Centre, OWCS supports seniors in ordering groceries online and delivering the food to their doors. 

Lalonde said the organization has focused on making sure all its programs can continue, albeit in modified fashion with personal protective equipment and physical distancing. She is grateful for how accommodating volunteers and clients alike have been when it came to adjusting to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“If seniors in the community have a need, or are feeling isolated and lonely, I would strongly encourage them to reach out to us, and we will be happy to connect them with a program or a volunteer to work with,” she said.

Christabel Fernandes has been a client with OWCS for over five years. Through their luncheon program, Fernandes receives a treat like fresh fruit, homemade banana cake or pumpkin muffins every Friday, and each month she gets an activity such as a crossword puzzle or colouring book.

Fernandes says the volunteers with OWCS — especially the drivers — are always friendly, polite and patient. 

“I think they are trying their best to keep us occupied, busy and informed,” said Fernandes. “They are a lovely bunch of people and we appreciate all that they do.”

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