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A lively blog post from Aileen Borruel, coordinator of several thriving and diverse programs for seniors within our Regional Council, shares the background development of some of these programs and the adaptations made to decrease isolation and increase the sense of joyful connection during the pandemic…

If there is anything I know for sure, it is that I have always had a strong passion in working with the senior population.  For the past 20 years I had the opportunity to work in non-profit community organizations and government settings. After graduating from McGill University in Social Work, I worked at a CLSC in the homecare service department for 6 years. It was back in 2016, during my second maternity leave, I had already fallen in love with motherhood, however I felt that I was missing my sense of connection and involvement with seniors.  This is where my idea of Joyful Connections started to come to life.

In April 2017, I took a chance and tried something completely new and on my own. I gathered 12 seniors within my community at my local church in Chomedey, Laval and offered a workshop called Jog Your Mind, a 10-week program that promotes cognitive vitality. This program was very well received, and what the participants enjoyed most was the was the social aspect of getting together on a weekly basis and creating friendships and connections.  It is thanks to my first group of participants who were so eager for more, that they inspired me to create my own program called Reminiscence: Sharing Our Life Stories.  This program allows seniors to look back on their lives and share their life stories and events, which in turn, helps keep their memories alive. I became so motivated and excited to discover and create more wellness workshops promoting active, healthy aging.

In April 2018, I became a certified laughter yoga instructor.  Although many people have not heard of Laughter Yoga, it has been around for 25 years.  It combines laughter and breathing exercises in a group setting, allowing for real, contagious hearty laughter to flow from the body and positive energy to emerge.  This is a great activity to release stress and bring in more joy and feel connected.  Through my teachings of laughter yoga, this has allowed me to branch out and work with people of all ages.  The creation of Joyful Connections has truly been an incredible experience for me being able to meet so many amazing individuals and have this opportunity to work with so many great community and church organizations such as: Beaconsfield United Church, Alzheimer Society of Montreal, 4 Korners Family Resource Center, West Island Women’s Center and Riverside United Church.

Fast forward to March 2020 when the pandemic hit, everything came to a halt, which brought so much uncertainty for us all.  For me, this meant all of my workshops had to be cancelled or put on hold for an undetermined period, along with my husband and our four little ones all together at home.  One of the groups that I was really concerned about was the Thursday Loonie Breakfast Club, which I coordinate.  Every Thursday, a large group of seniors gathers every Thursday morning for breakfast at 9 am at Beaconsfield United Church.  All the seniors, including myself looks forward to our weekly gathering which includes sharing a meal together, telling jokes, socializing, line dancing and monthly guest speakers/workshops. I knew that I had to offer something more than just weekly calls and emails to the members. Prior to COVID-19, all my workshops had been done in person and had zero experience offering any kind of workshops online and knew nothing about Zoom! I thought to myself, well, now would be the time to try something new and get out of my comfort zone. 

I had an idea one Wednesday early evening and sent out a last-minute email invitation to our Loonie Breakfast members for our first Thursday Morning Coffee Chat at 10:30 am online through Zoom for the very next day.  I gave simple, basic instructions on how to log onto Zoom, create an account and asked everyone to contact me if they needed any tech assistance. I remember telling my husband that I may be the only one showing up at my Zoom meeting! The next morning, I remember feeling a little nervous logging into our morning coffee chat not knowing what to expect.  To my surprise, I was so excited to see one member  in the waiting room! I remember feeling even more and more excited seeing more members pop in one by one. I was just over the moon that eight people showed up and how giddy we all were to see one another online! I told everyone how impressed I was that they were able to navigate through and admitted that it was my first time and had no idea how it would turn out. I am proud to say that since the beginning of the pandemic, we have been meeting on a regular basis every single Thursday morning connecting with one another and enjoying weekly conversations just about anything. Many of the seniors tell me that it is a great distraction from all the news and that it gives everyone something to look forward to and be able to keep in touch and get to know one another more. This experience made me realize the possibility that I could offer my workshops online, which could provide the opportunity for seniors to socialize and stay connected in order to prevent loneliness and social isolation during the pandemic! 

I am so very thankful to Rev. Shaun Fryday and Jennifer Forest, Administrative Program Assistant of Beaconsfield United Church for giving me the opportunity to offer workshops online such as Jog Our Memory and Trivia Tuesday which allows seniors to continue to keep their mind sharp and active.  We are also fortunate to have dance instructor, Kim Valiquette who offers her weekly online dance program, Young at Heart every Friday morning.  In addition, I have also been working with Riverside United Church and offered my Reminiscence program over the spring and upon request, a new program called Wisdom Wednesday, which provides the opportunity for seniors to share their wisdom stories, life lessons and wonderful memories in a group setting.  It has also been great to hear from other organizations I have worked have reached out during the pandemic requesting for laughter yoga workshops online.  It is absolutely amazing how even this workshop could be adapted and done online and still feel that strong connection and positive energy amongst one another. This whole experience has been such a positive journey, but of course there are always challenges.  Unfortunately, not all seniors have access to a computer or iPad or know how to use one, however I was quite surprised that majority of the seniors I work with do.  I was relieved that I still had some participants join the Zoom meetings using their phone or managed without a camera on their computer. There are also some seniors who did not feel comfortable joining groups online or were just not interested.  I also learned to start 10-15 min early to assist with any tech problems as that could sometimes eat away at the time and be disruptive at the beginning of the sessions. However, the more sessions we would do together, the better everyone got and became more familiar and comfortable with Zoom!  It is thanks to these Zoom meetings, I realized that I had to upgrade our internet speed and replace our old router to avoid all those embarrassing freezing moments!

The last challenge that we face is continuing to try to reach out to as many seniors as possible and spread the word about all the great programs and activities being offered online. What surprised me most was that I had never imagined myself facilitating workshops online and that I have come to really appreciate and love this whole new experience. The most surprising outcome is how tech savvy our seniors of today really are.  I find more and more seniors have really been keeping up with technology that I even learned some tips and tricks from them! It also brings me so much joy having a 90-year-old woman in my group and listening to her life stories. I learn so much from each and every one of my participants from all the different groups I facilitate and always take the time to express my gratitude to them for showing up and having so much to offer! It is really inspiring to witness how seniors continue to thrive, learn, grow, meet new people, share their experiences, and want to maintain a connection with others. It is incredible how we can still have such a strong sense of community together online. This entire experience is proof that something positive can certainly come out of something so negative. 

Thanks to technology and all the great, supportive organizations I have been working with, I have been able to continue to do meaningful work and share my passion with so many.  I can look back and honestly say that during the pandemic I was fortunate enough to be able to spend so much quality time at home with my husband and my four precious little children and was able to experience something completely new by having Joyful Connections offer workshops online. You never really know what can happen until you try, and I am so glad I tried!

If you are interested in any of the workshops or would like to know more info, you can contact Aileen Borruel through email: Info.joyfulconnections@gmail.com or Facebook Page: Joyful Connections