Bow Cliff Centre 50+ reflects the experiences and history of so many other 50+ activity centres in Calgary. As the young Western city’s population started to age, communities developed supports for their maturing citizens. In southwest Calgary, Bow Cliff emerged in 1976 to meet the needs of neighbourhood seniors, offering programs and companionship to that growing demographic. From hosting Bridge games to fitness classes to being part of the Rhythm Kats musical group, Bow Cliff has offered seniors a place to congregate and stay physically and socially active. As Bow Cliff celebrates its 45th year serving its membership, it also recognizes and celebrates the collaboration it has enjoyed with other similar centres across the city.
“We were all pretty much established at the same time, and we are each other’s support network,” says John Yannitsos, executive director of Bow Cliff Centre 50+. “The executive directors are in charge of the operations of these senior activity centres, and we were all dealt the same nasty blow with this pandemic.”
Executive directors from 11 Calgary organizations like West Hillhurst Go-Getters Association, Confederation Park 55+ Activity Centre, the Ogden House 50+ Centre and the Kerby Centre came together in 2008 to share ideas, collaborate on projects and support each other through an informal network. That network became a lifeline in March 2020 when COVID-19 restrictions saw the world all but close down.
Prior to COVID, the centres offered programs that promoted active living through interaction and fitness for thousands of members. The goal was to encourage independent living, engage members and enhance the quality of their lives.
“All the programming keeps seniors away from the hospitals and longterm care. They come, they socialize and exercise and they feel like they are needed in society and in the community,” says Renata Michalski, executive director of the Ogden 50+ Centre.
The 50+ activity centres have been crucial for older Calgarians. If seniors become isolated and alone, they lose hope. Their health deteriorates, as ignoring small problems becomes life-threatening, and their isolation breeds depression. During COVID, the programming created to prevent these outcomes was shut down, and it made the executive directors’ jobs so much harder.
“Our day job before COVID was to reduce isolation and loneliness and all the impacts of that — we work with a population where there are mental health ramifications to loneliness,” says Larry Mathieson, chief executive officer of the Kerby Centre. “Then all of a sudden there’s a pandemic and it’s almost like our right hand is tied behind our backs because what we normally do to reduce isolation and loneliness is no longer available.”
In the blink of an eye, they transitioned from activity centres for seniors to entities tasked with trying to keep the membership connected and safe. And the fact that the demographic hardest hit by COVID was the one they served made their support all the more critical.
“We were first established as a place to go for seniors’ activities. The pandemic happened and we became the go-to place for outreach support,” says Yannitsos.
While not accredited outreach providers, all of the organizations pivoted and did all they could to continue to serve their members. In many cases, the executive directors felt they could never do enough despite working longer days with dwindling resources. Many members were afraid or unable to leave their homes and supports that helped them get their medications or meals pre-COVID were no longer available.
The centres rallied volunteers to try to meet the growing demands. They dropped supplies to members curbside, from toilet paper and toothpaste to prescriptions and prepared meals, but were unable to connect in a meaningful way with the members stuck inside. In lieu of visits the staff made phone calls to ensure their members were okay. As the pandemic wore on, those calls went from five minutes to 10 to 20 to 30 minutes, with lonely members craving connection and the staff happily obliging, knowing that they were showing members that they were not alone and passing along messages of hope and encouragement.
“We and the staff are absorbing all of this. We’re trying to be uplifting. We’re trying to be reassuring, and I’m glad we were there to help, but we’re mentally exhausted,” says Yannitsos.
Since last March, the EDs of the activity centres have worked tirelessly to support their members, collaborating, cross-promoting programs and combining efforts to ensure their services don’t overlap. When one centre couldn’t cook meals, another stepped up and provided them; when one centre was short volunteers another centre sent theirs to help. For the past 15 months, Calgary’s 50+ activity centres have adapted their operations and revenue models in order to survive the pandemic.
But what members needed most was to come together to socialize and connect, and that wasn’t an option in the same ways. Technology presented a solution, but it was a solution fraught with challenges.
“About half of our population has zero technology. Some don’t even have a cell phone. So trying to keep in contact with them and trying to stay positive have been the hardest things for me,” says Carole Saviak, executive director of the West Hillhurst Go-Getters Association.
EDs sent out email blasts to stay connected with members and to get information out to them. They also transitioned to virtual programming through Zoom and YouTube videos, trying to overcome the gaps in the members’ experience with and access to technology while facing the deficiencies in their own technology stores. Outdated laptops couldn’t handle the demands of virtual programming and many centres had to find funds to update technology in order to support their membership during lockdowns.
Funding is a perpetual challenge. These centres are largely government funded, along with private donations (with tax credits) and earned revenue from user and membership fees. The earned revenue disappeared as centres cancelled bingos, movie nights, and programs in accordance with AHS guidelines, and more money was required to maintain cleaning protocols for safety.
While Calgary’s corporate community has been generous and supportive, it is never enough to cover all the centres’ needs. Funding from the Family & Community Support Services (FCSS) is a critical lifeline for the organizations, but the change from three-year to annual funding renewals has added more stress around applying and budgeting with no guaranteed funding. The federal wage subsidy kept the centres afloat and the EDs are hopeful that donors will choose to support these non-profit seniors’ charities and that a new City council in the fall will recognize the importance of what centres are doing and maintain funding for their programming.
In the midst of the pandemic challenges, Confederation Park 55+ Activity Centre lost its home and had to finance a move for August. Triwood Community stepped up with some much needed good news and offered a space that is a great fit for the centre and the community. And the Calgary community is ready for more good news. With vaccination rates making it possible to ease restrictions and find a way back to normal, the EDs are finally starting to breath a bit easier. They hope to welcome members back to in-person activities later this summer, with Ogden House opening Monday and Thursday evenings in September for games nights to attract new and younger members. With an end in sight, the EDs are appreciative of the support network that helped them endure the last devastating year.
“We are coming out of a global pandemic, still remaining positive,” says Jeannette Provo, executive director of the Confederation Park 55+ Activity Centre. “I can’t believe, despite everything we’ve had to overcome, we stayed positive.”
It’s that positivity, support and collaboration between the activity centres that has made a difference in members’ and the staff’s lives. And when it’s safe, they invite all the 50+ Calgarians to come in, connect and celebrate coming through such a tough year together.
Bow Cliff Cantre 50+
(403) 246-0390 | www.bowcliffseniors.org
West Hillhurst Go-Getters Association
(403) 283-3720 | www.gogetters.ca
Ogden House Senior Citizen Club
(403) 279-2003 | www.ogden50plus.org
Confederation Park 55+ Activity Centre
(403) 289-4780 | www.yycseniors.com
(403) 265-0661 | www.kerbycentre.com