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Volunteer shortage as seniors who are self-isolating over COVID stay home

Ian Hartley has been volunteering for years, offering his services as a hospital chaplain, working at the Central Alberta Pregnancy Care Centre and as a member of the Rotary Club.

Ian Hartley has been volunteering for years, offering his services as a hospital chaplain, working at the Central Alberta Pregnancy Care Centre and as a member of the Rotary Club.

"I'm really at the peak of what everyone would call wisdom, information, experience sharing," said Hartley, a resident of Red Deer.

His life has changed since the COVID-19 pandemic, and at 79 years old, he now has a lot more time on his hands.

Hartley isn't alone.

Thousands of seniors across the country who would normally be helping on the front lines during a crisis have become shut-ins, protecting themselves against the virus.

The loss of that senior manpower has had a dramatic impact on community organizations, health care and other sectors of Canada's economy since the lockdown began in March.  

Andrea Seale, executive director of the B.C. division of the Canadian Cancer Society, said about half of the organization's nearly 100,000 volunteer force is made up of seniors.

They do things like drive people to cancer appointments, raise funds and give peer support, she said.

"They really make it possible for us to do so much more than we could ever do on our own."

Their work is in communities and in person with people, which can't be done because of the need for social distancing, she said.

It's a setback that has affected patients, caregivers and hurt the society financially, Seale said.

Isobel Mackenzie, B.C.'s seniors advocate, said the province put out a call for volunteers to help people 65 and older with groceries, and sometimes a chat on the phone when the lockdown was announced in mid-March.

Many of those who signed up to help were other seniors, she said.

"There's a little bit of 'There but for the grace of God go I' when you're in your 70s and 80s and are doing well, and you see some seniors who aren't doing so well so I think that has a pull on people's heartstrings and a pull on people's desire to help," Mackenzie said.

She said seniors make a significant contribution to society, but it's too early to know how the loss of their volunteer work will affect the organizations that depend them.

"And that is reflected in how many of them volunteer and how much seniors look after not just each other, but all of society."

Chris Hatch of Food Banks Canada said the network has more than 25,000 volunteers.

Although the organization doesn't ask the age of their volunteers, he said he knows anecdotally that a large portion of them are seniors.

Since the lockdown began, Hatch said several food banks have lost senior volunteers including the Agassiz-Harrison Community Services Food Bank in B.C. 

To fill the gap, they leveraged paid staff from other closed programs to conduct the work that volunteers normally perform, he said.

On Salt Spring Island in B.C., all 15 volunteers at the food bank were seniors and have paused their duties.

Food banks in Newfoundland and Labrador, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Ontario have also seen a drop in senior volunteers, Hatch said.

He said the food banks are buying personal protective equipment to ensure those who do give their time are safe.

Paula Speevak, president of Volunteer Canada, said about 12.7 million Canadians volunteer every year and of those, around 2.3 million are 65 and over.

"What's very interesting is that (seniors) volunteer more than 200 hours every year whereas the average is 154 hours," Speevak said.

Most seniors help in home support services like family visits, Meals on Wheels, hospital auxiliaries and long-term care, she said.

Those activities give seniors a sense of belonging, purpose and value, and help them feel connected to the community, Speevak said.

Hartley said volunteering has always been a way for him to give back.

"I'm originally from South Africa where we say it takes a whole village to raise a child and (volunteering) is a payback to the community for what they've done for me."

For now, the hospital chaplain sometimes preaches via Zoom and has conducted a few funerals.

Hartley said seniors choose to volunteer because it can be boring after retirement and giving time to an organization provides meaning to their lives. 

"It's a way of life, eh?" he said, laughing.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 14, 2020

Hina Alam , The Canadian Press