Reducing Seniors Isolation One Virtual Class at a Time

Before COVID-19 descended on Toronto, WoodGreen operated 5 busy Seniors Active Living Centres in Toronto’s East End. On any given day, large groups of seniors would gather to sing opera, learn Tai Chi, line dance, enjoy congregate meals, have seasonal parties & potlucks and so much more.

“We had to close down quickly in mid-March, and our in-person seniors programming went from 5 days a week to nothing,” said Cinthya Narvaez, Manager of WoodGreen’s Senior Active Living Centres. “The programs we offered in-person were always intended to reduce isolation for seniors living alone, to give them somewhere fun to go, to gather with friends and socialize. And in a matter of a few days, it was taken away from them.”

Cinthya’s staff started calling every member of the active living centres weekly to check in and see how they were coping. Immediately, it became clear to the team that seniors were struggling with loneliness and isolation.

“COVID-19 has been hard for all of us, but being locked down took a tremendous toll on the seniors who live alone and don’t have any support,” Cinthya said. “We knew they still needed us, and the interaction our programs provided. So basically overnight, we adapted our programs to go virtual.”

That sounds reasonably easy to do, but for seniors with little to no tech savvy, logging on to a Microsoft Teams or Zoom event was almost impossible to figure out. Cinthya’s team spent hours with each client, walking them through the steps needed to set up the applications required to participate virtually.

“I am so immensely thankful to Lydia for all her support to help me set up to use MS Teams App.  I was able to participate in the variety of virtual classes using Teams App to join the meeting. My husband and I look forward each week to join Peter’s stay home exercise class level 1,2,3.  We have not missed a class yet !    Thank you to The WoodGreen organization.” — A.K, WoodGreen Client

“We provided lots of 1-1 tech support, teaching clients how to install apps, mute themselves, make screen displays bigger for those who are visually impaired – and for those who didn’t have devices and internet, we set up conference call lines so they could join by phone.”

Since mid-March, more than 80 seniors have been able to access virtual fitness classes, health workshops including how to protect themselves from COVID-19 and stress management techniques, virtual potluck meals, meditation and so much more. Many classes are also available in Cantonese and Mandarin.


Screenshot from a weekly fun games activity, facilitated by placement student Madison Crombie

“I participated in the cyber-security workshop and was very pleased that I did. I found that the presenter was very knowledgeable and shared the information in a clear and concise manner. I even learned something new in that I didn’t know that there was even such a thing as a passphrase and that this is more secure than a password. I would definitely recommend this workshop to others!” — M.G, WoodGreen Client

WoodGreen also has some clients who don’t have land lines, and can’t participate at all. Cinthya’s staff partnered with the WoodGreen Foundation and received more than 50 adult coloring books to put together  wellness kits that included crosswords, fun activity sheets pencil crayons and puzzles to help our most isolated seniors to keep busy.

Cinthya and her team are now looking ahead to a safe, scaled back reopening. “We’re beginning to think about outdoor activities like Nordic pole walking,

bringing back exercise classes with a reduced number of people, and we’ll prioritize clients who live alone and don’t have access to a phone.

These events will be offered together with the online classes, which have become so successful that there’s a waiting list.

“The virtual classes have actually allowed us to connect with seniors who were too shy to come in to one of our locations in person, so now we have a really accessible, non-intimidating way of reaching those seniors too.”