In the Right Place with SAQ
Published on March 27, 2023
In the Right Place is a blog series of the COM-Unity project featuring conversations with our partner organizations. In each conversation, we try to get a sense for how belonging takes shape in their specific communities, and how the places we inhabit shape us-- and how we, in turn, shape them.
Part 7: Care Networks and Centres of Belonging
with Katia Toimil-Bramhall, Executive Director of Seniors Action Quebec (SAQ)
Today’s conversation is with Katia Toimil-Bramhall, Executive Director of Seniors Action Quebec (SAQ), a province-wide network connecting community organizations providing services to seniors. In the conversation, Katia shared her perspectives on the importance of regional, community-based organizations and their role in creating a sense of belonging for and with local English-speaking seniors. She also highlighted the importance of recognizing seniors as members of specific communities, not as a monolith, and explained the impacts that COVID-19 had on communities when it destabilized the committed senior volunteer force that they relied on.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
COM-Unity: We like to start off the blog by asking the specifics of place: SAQ is based in Montreal, but it also connects English-speaking seniors all around Quebec, a fact that is well reflected in the video project, Je Me Souviens: Portraits of Who We Are. Can you talk about all these different places that are represented in the videos?
Katia Toimil-Bramhall: What we tried to do in the first round of videos was, ‘okay, what does it mean to be an English-speaking Quebecer? And how do you look at Quebec now in your, you know, 60s 70s, 80s versus 40 some years ago?’ And we wanted to try and get as many different perspectives from different regions as possible. I think we did 13 videos: we had two people in Montreal, one couple in the Laurentians. One guy in the Magdalen Islands, one lady in Rouyn-Noranda—so in Abitibi-Témiscamingue—then we had two people in the Eastern Townships, and one person in Kamouraska.
So that was round one. And then round two, last year, we changed focus a little bit, we went to five organizations—so, ACDPN in Montreal, the African Canadian Development and Prevention Network. Then we went to CAMI, which is the Council for Anglophone Magdalen Islanders, and to CASA, the Community for Anglophone Social Action in the Gaspé. Then we went to Abitibi-Témiscamingue, to Neighbours [Regional Association] and then we went to VEQ in Quebec City, which is the Voice of English-speaking Quebec.
The idea was that we were going to focus on these five organizations, because they all have wellness centres or programmes for seniors. They work directly with English-speaking seniors to do all sorts of activities and what turned out in those videos is how these community groups create a sense of belonging within their respective communities.
CU: What are some of the regional differences in terms of what English-speaking seniors are dealing with, and what kinds of barriers are these welcome centres helping them with?
KTB: You have to keep in mind that a lot of these English-speaking communities in the different regions are in pockets. So, for example, in the Magdalen Islands, they're all concentrated in a few areas of the islands. While in the Gaspé, it's pockets along the Baie des Chaleurs and around Gaspé Bay. For you to visit someone, you have to get in a car and go somewhere, and if you're a senior who doesn't drive, you can get really isolated really fast. Some of them have family, but some of them don't have family here [in Quebec]. So that's the thing: how do you prevent isolation when they may not necessarily have family here?
That's why these community groups, their programming and their wellness centres play such a key role for English-speaking seniors, because it's a way for the seniors to get out of the house and interact with other people. It really is like a community within a community within a community if that makes sense—for example, for the ACDPN, the majority of the of the Black English-speaking seniors that they work with are all from the Caribbean. So that's, you know, that's a super specific community!
CU: Yeah definitely; and what you’re saying is making the point that while we’re getting better at talking about intersectionality, sometimes age gets left out of that. Society still isn’t great at not treating seniors as a monolith, even though, as you’re saying, like any person, they’re all going to have specific needs when it comes to feeling a sense of belonging.
KTB: That was the thing that really came out in the second set of videos that we did versus the first ones, but it was also because, by default, we got a different perspective and angle, but it was how these community groups create a sense of community, within their community. So if you have a sense of community, then there is a sense of belonging, maybe not necessarily to the whole province, per se, but because you belong in your community.
And it also gives the staff indirectly a sense of belonging as well, right? Because they're actually doing something for their communities. So, it's this beautiful kind of circular give and take, and everyone's getting something out of it.
CU: Oh wow, I love that! Maybe an obvious question while we’re talking about these English-speaking community groups and wellness centres is, of course, how were they impacted by Covid, and how did that impact the wellbeing of seniors, especially in less populated areas?
KTB: So, I started at Seniors Action in December 2019. I was the second employee that was hired [after nearly ten years as a purely volunteer-run organization]. And I was hired to do two specific tasks and just kind of help with the day-to-day operation and kind of growing the organization. So we got all of this set up by February 2020. And then boom, March 2020 happens. So like everyone else, we had to pivot super quickly, super fast, and kind of shift everything that we were doing, which was supposed to be in person onto online, while also kind of trying to work with organizations, and to try and do the information sharing. And, you know, because we're all essentially in 'what is going on? mode'.
It was a huge challenge, because not all seniors—you know—their tech skills aren’t perhaps the best or they are not comfortable with certain technologies. But you also have to keep in mind that not all seniors have a lot of disposable income. So not all of them have internet and not all of them have computers. Depending on where you live in the province, your internet connection might not be amazing. So I know it became a huge, huge source of stress for organizations and families and a lot of organizations just had to re pivot their services, to help seniors with just the day to day.
It became a lot of basic things like groceries, or how do they get their medication? How do they get their food? Online banking, that was a huge one. You know, the seniors used to go to the banks and deposit their checks or pay their bills. Who can teach them how to do online banking? When the vaccination started, and everyone got a QR code. Not all of the seniors have, you know, iPhones or Android phones. So how am I supposed to go anywhere, when I don't have proof of vaccination?
So there was a lot of stuff like that that was happening at all of the organizations. And one more thing that a lot of people forget: a lot of community groups and organizations, a lot of their volunteers are seniors. So, then they lost a big chunk of their volunteers!
CU: The pandemic really has revealed these informal care networks hasn’t it—ones that seniors contribute to and also rely on! When you have to formalize those things or institutionalize those things, you just see how much work is being done.
KTB: Absolutely. My personal hope is that people realize the value of seniors, you know, that they do contribute [even if] you may not necessarily see it. That it’s not just, you know, ‘they had a good run’. They still contribute in a lot of ways to society, and also the community groups—they work on the frontline as kind of a buffer, if you will, between government agencies and community. And so we also need to show the value of organizations and community groups and non-profits, whatever you want to call them—the people who are on the frontline working with the caretakers, or caregivers or seniors or mums and tots or whatever—there's value to these organizations from a society point of view and also within their respective communities.
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