Ancoura helps adults living with mental illness avoid isolation in time of physical distancing

A woman wearing a chef hat is seen sitting behind a table with backing supplies and equipment in front of her
A volunteer teaches residents to bake a cake during the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Ancoura.

By Alvin Tsang

Ancoura was founded on the mandate to help adults with mental illness avoid social isolation, but it’s had to do the exact opposite in the COVID-19 pandemic — help people with mental illness isolate, help them avoid social gatherings.

The mission at Ancoura was always to provide a nurturing and fulfilling environment for adults with mental illness, which included affordable housing and a supportive community. There are currently a total of seven Ancoura homes around the city, and each home houses three residents.

Brian Harrison, current communications chair and past president of Ancoura, spoke on how Ancoura residents have found the pandemic difficult on a psychological level but were able to manage it on a health level.

“Having people close together has always been our model, and it’s been so hard because the public health model for COVID-19 is so far away from our model,” Harrison said. “Our model entails being close to other people.”

Ancoura has effectively and rigorously upheld COVID-19 pandemic isolation rules. No resident has tested positive for COVID-19 (at the time of writing). 

The common loneliness, isolation, stress and withdrawal felt by everyone else in the population, however, was felt at a higher magnitude by the Ancoura residents. The pandemic had been especially taxing on them because of higher vulnerability to experiencing relapses and mental challenges. Symptoms were aggravated and made more acute with the lack of social interaction.

“We’re carrying on as we can,” Harrison said.

Before a new resident would move into one of the homes, the team at Ancoura tested and ensured that he or she would be a good fit for every resident involved.

“We try to find common interests with other residents,” Harrison said. “Since we have three residents in each home, before one moves in, there’s two already there, and the person that might move in might spend a weekend there just to see how they get along. That’s how we test if it’s an appropriate home for someone.”

What was said to be unique about Ancoura was the support system: it wasn’t simply housing; it was friendship as well.

A headshot of Brian Harrison against the backdrop of a river on an overcast day
Brian Harrison, communications chair and past president of Ancoura. Photo courtesy of Ancoura.

“We provide friendship – social friendships,” Harrison said. “Of course, housing, cleaning, all the practical things as well – but it’s important to focus on relationships [rather] than to just provide a house. Their relationships with each other are important, and the relationships they have with the volunteers, so important. They get very close to the volunteers and often become a family.”

Ancoura had four to five volunteers for each home, and it always went beyond checking up on the residents and resolving household conflicts: they would spend time together.

Prior to the pandemic, the volunteers would often organize an afternoon or evening out for the residents, sometimes bringing all 21 residents from the seven households. They went to hockey games, tulip festivals during the summer and plenty of other events and activities. One volunteer had a habit of inviting and bringing residents over to his own home to watch sports games.

In the first year of the pandemic, a lot of these fun outings had to be cancelled, including two major events that Ancoura counted on to meet revenue targets: a gala and an art show.

Volunteers did what they could and held weekly house meetings with the residents using Zoom.

In anticipation of the future, having entered the second year of the pandemic, Ancoura plans to try cooking lessons, game nights for the residents in their households, activities that can be done online, more opportunities for one-on-one conversations and a whole lot more.

Ancoura also has plans to hold this year’s annual gala dinner on Sept. 16 at the St. Elias Centre, but the plans are conditional on safety for residents, sponsors and everyone else, when the time comes.

“We’re optimistic that by the fall we can gather again,” Harrison said.

For more information, visit Ancoura at ancoura.ca

This story ran in the Giving section of the May 2021 edition of Kitchissippi Times. 

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