Ask the Expert: Is volunteering good for my health?

Every day, Jeff D’Silva, chief storyteller for Propellus, the volunteer and non-profit resource centre of Calgary, hears stories of people selflessly serving others. Take Gertie, who is 102 and volunteers her time to read to schoolchildren. Or James, 45, who was born with congenital cerebral malformations and is now devoting his life to volunteering. (He’s already at 5,800 hours and counting.)

People like Gertie and James are passionate about why they do what they do, but don’t expect—or want—recognition. “Volunteering gives people confidence, community and a sense of purpose,” says D’Silva. “And, when you do good things, you feel good.”

Volunteering can enrich every aspect of people’s lives, he says, from reducing social isolation for seniors and helping them feel engaged and connected, to offering new Canadians an opportunity to build networks in their communities. “No matter what you end up doing, it’s a chance to meet people and learn new skills,” he says. “In the end, you get back more than you could ever possibly give.”

Researchers have found plenty of evidence that he’s right. A 2015 study from the University of British Columbia found that doing good deeds could reduce your social anxiety levels, while a report by University of Toronto researcher Dr. Nicole Anderson found that seniors who volunteer are happier and healthier. In Anderson’s report, volunteers had fewer signs of depression, fewer functional limitations and better overall health. They even lived longer!

If you’re not sure what kind of volunteering is right for you, D’Silva says a good way to get started is to think about what is most meaningful for you, and look for opportunities that reflect that. If you’re an avid reader, consider volunteering with a literacy program for newcomers. If you’re a foodie, sign up to prepare or serve lunch or dinner at a local community centre. “It’s less about the role or specific task you’d be doing and more about what you’re most passionate about,” he says. “When you tap into what you love, it leads to more meaningful and lasting connections.”

Ask the Expert: Why keeping seniors social matters

karenkobayashi

Karen Kobayashi
Research Affiliate & Associate Professor,
University of Victoria’s Institute on Aging & Lifelong Health

Karen Kobayashi is a Research Affiliate at the University of Victoria’s Institute on Aging & Lifelong Health, a multidisciplinary research centre that focuses on the needs of our country’s aging population. Also an Associate Professor in the University of Victoria’s Department of Sociology, she’s a leading expert on the relationship between social isolation and health among older adults. Imagine a City spoke with Karen for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to learn about the importance of keeping seniors social.

1. Seniors are one of the fastest-growing populations across the country. What are some of the challenges that this dramatic growth brings?

When people reach their later years, we tend to see more significant changes in their physical and cognitive health, including problems with memory, language and judgment. An increase in the older population brings with it a greater need for supports for seniors. This doesn’t just mean improved access to health care. Programs and services to help seniors live independently and socialize—many of which are funded by United Way—are also extremely important.

2. Research tells us that nearly 20% of seniors feel isolated. What are some of the risk factors that may influence, or exacerbate, isolation?

There are quite a few risk factors that often lead to isolation. A newcomer might lack the language or cultural knowledge to develop social networks in their community. On the other hand, someone living in poverty might not have access to the transportation they need to get to important programs and services. A person’s physical health can also greatly limit their mobility, making it difficult to leave their home, while cognitive issues might make it next to impossible for others to communicate. Lastly, it might be surprising, but your gender is another important factor. In my research, we’ve discovered that men tend to have smaller social networks than women and as a result are more likely to experience isolation.

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3. What happens if we don’t address the growing issue of seniors’ isolation?

Social isolation is linked to poorer cognitive and physical health outcomes. This could mean an increase in mental health issues like depression, anxiety, poor sleep quality or accelerated cognitive decline. This is very much a public health issue—especially considering these outcomes are more likely to contribute to seniors getting sick more often and dying sooner.

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4. What are some of the best ways to address this important issue and what are the benefits?

Maintaining strong social networks is essential for keeping seniors healthy. This is often achieved through community-based programs that put social interaction and physical activities at the forefront. This ultimately allows people that have small social networks to create their own sense of community. Programs like exercise classes, home visits and art workshops are an excellent way to maintain social well-being, which leads to better cognitive, mental and physical health. For many seniors, this means an increase in happiness, less anxiety and less depression. United Way does a really great job of ensuring these important programs are accessible in communities that really need them—whether it’s a low-income neighbourhood, a rural or remote area or an ethnic enclave, a community with a high density of one ethnocultural group.

5. Why is seniors isolation an important social and health issue that affects everyone?

Healthy seniors contribute to healthy communities by bringing a sense of energy to a community and lending a hand in a variety of meaningful ways. One way is through volunteering. Not only can they donate their talents to helping the community at large, but they also play an important role in helping other seniors break free from isolation, too.

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How to get mental health help for your child

Do you have a child or teen who’s struggling with their mental health and aren’t sure where to get help? We reached out to several experts to put together this tip sheet for parents that can help you recognize some of the signs of mental illness and learn more about resources in your community where you can access services and supports.

SIGNS THAT YOUR CHILD OR TEEN MIGHT BE STRUGGLING

One of the first signs that your child or teen may be struggling with mental illness? They may start to behave in a way that is unusual or out of character for them. For example, if they used to be quite social and outgoing and they suddenly become more isolated, even refusing to go to school or interact with their peers, this could be a red flag.  “You may also notice changes in a child’s appetite or sleeping patterns,” says Myra Levy, Clinical Director at East Metro Youth Services, a United Way-supported agency. “Sometimes mental health concerns, for example depression and anxiety, can also be triggered by a stressful or traumatic event including a divorce, a serious breakup or a death in the family. Your child or teen may tell you that they’re not feeling happy or that they’re having thoughts about suicide.” It’s also important to remember that you are not alone: 10 to 20 per cent of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness or disorder and only one in five children who need mental health services receives them.

WAYS TO GET HELP:

IN AN EMERGENCY

If you suspect your child or teen is at risk of harming themselves or others, and you feel that you’re not able to keep them safe, take them to a hospital emergency department right away, advises Dr. Joanna Henderson, a psychologist and Director of the Margaret and Wallace McCain Centre for Child, Youth and Family Mental Health at CAMH. In less urgent situations, Dr. Henderson also suggests that parents can call United Way-supported Distress Centres for support and advice on other appropriate community or professional resources to help your child. Young people can also call the Kids Help Phone to speak to a counsellor and to learn more about other mental health supports in the community.

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FAMILY DOCTOR

Many parents often turn to their family doctor or pediatrician for mental health support.  A recent Toronto Star article notes that, according to the Ontario Medical Association, family physicians deliver about half of all mental health services in Ontario. This includes supports such as assessments, therapy and prescribing medication. If your family doctor or pediatrician works as part of a multidisciplinary team, he or she can also refer children and their parents to other healthcare professionals on the team including psychologists, nurse practitioners or social workers. All of these services are typically covered by OHIP when delivered in this setting.

COMMUNITY MENTAL HEALTH CENTRES

There are also a number of accredited community-based mental health centres, including United Way-supported East Metro Youth Services, where parents and their children can access a range of mental health services. The best way to find a centre near you is to visit Connex Ontario or call United Way-supported 211 for resources in Toronto and York Region. Some community mental health centres offer walk-in clinics where parents and their children can access help with no doctor’s referral/diagnosis or appointment required. The services provided by these centres are also paid for by the government, private donors and in some cases, supported by organizations including United Way. Additional services range from one-on-one/group counselling sessions to more intensive options including alternative classrooms and residential treatment programs. United Way also invests in a variety of community-based mental health programs that support vulnerable and marginalized groups including LGBTQ+ and homeless youth. Counselling services at community mental health centres are typically provided by professionals with Masters-level designations in social work, psychology or counselling. “Although traditionally there have been wait lists to access psychiatry or community counselling services, walk-in clinics are supporting early access and reduced wait times,” says Alanna Burke, Clinical Manager at East Metro, which is the lead agency for infant, child and adolescent mental health in Toronto.  The agency, in partnership with the Hospital for Sick Children piloted a telepsychiatry project and plans to scale up the initiative across the city to connect young people with psychiatrists to provide faster diagnosis.

SPECIALISTS

Many family doctors will also refer parents and their children/teens to specialists including psychiatrists, psychologists and psychotherapists. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who can assess and diagnose mental illnesses including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or ADHD, among others. They are also licensed to provide therapy and prescribe medication. Although services provided by psychiatrists and other specialists in the publicly-funded system (including hospitals) are covered by OHIP, wait times for doctors can be significant and variable, depending on circumstances, says Henderson. Psychologists, who do not typically require a doctor’s referral, can diagnose mental illness and provide therapy, but can’t prescribe medication. When they work in the publicly-funded system their services are covered by OHIP. While wait lists to see psychologists in private practice can be shorter, the hourly cost to see this type of specialist ranges from approximately $150- $250-per-hour. Henderson says some specialists offer a “sliding scale” of hourly fees for lower-income clients. Specialists such as psychologists and psychiatrists offer a range of therapies for children and teens including cognitive behavioural therapy, dialectical behavior therapy and mindfulness—in both an individual and group settings. There are also a small number of school board social workers in school boards in both Toronto and York Region who offer supports to students in a school setting. “As a parent of a child or teen struggling with mental illness, it’s also important to take care of yourself,” adds Henderson. “We know that when families are getting support together, that can really lead to positive outcomes.”

Ask the Expert: Why keeping seniors social matters

karenkobayashi

Karen Kobayashi
Research Affiliate & Associate Professor,
University of Victoria’s Institute on Aging & Lifelong Health

Karen Kobayashi is a Research Affiliate at the University of Victoria’s Institute on Aging & Lifelong Health, a multidisciplinary research centre that focuses on the needs of our country’s aging population. Also an Associate Professor in the University of Victoria’s Department of Sociology, she’s a leading expert on the relationship between social isolation and health among older adults. Imagine a City spoke with Karen for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to learn about the importance of keeping seniors social.

1. Seniors are one of the fastest-growing populations across the country. What are some of the challenges that this dramatic growth brings?

When people reach their later years, we tend to see more significant changes in their physical and cognitive health, including problems with memory, language and judgment. An increase in the older population brings with it a greater need for supports for seniors. This doesn’t just mean improved access to health care. Programs and services to help seniors live independently and socialize—many of which are funded by United Way—are also extremely important.

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2. Research tells us that nearly 20% of seniors feel isolated. What are some of the risk factors that may influence, or exacerbate, isolation?

There are quite a few risk factors that often lead to isolation. A newcomer might lack the language or cultural knowledge to develop social networks in their community. On the other hand, someone living in poverty might not have access to the transportation they need to get to important programs and services. A person’s physical health can also greatly limit their mobility, making it difficult to leave their home, while cognitive issues might make it next to impossible for others to communicate. Lastly, it might be surprising, but your gender is another important factor. In my research, we’ve discovered that men tend to have smaller social networks than women and as a result are more likely to experience isolation.

dsc_5551

3. What happens if we don’t address the growing issue of seniors’ isolation?

Social isolation is linked to poorer cognitive and physical health outcomes. This could mean an increase in mental health issues like depression, anxiety, poor sleep quality or accelerated cognitive decline. This is very much a public health issue—especially considering these outcomes are more likely to contribute to seniors getting sick more often and dying sooner.

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4. What are some of the best ways to address this important issue and what are the benefits?

Maintaining strong social networks is essential for keeping seniors healthy. This is often achieved through community-based programs that put social interaction and physical activities at the forefront. This ultimately allows people that have small social networks to create their own sense of community. Programs like exercise classes, home visits and art workshops are an excellent way to maintain social well-being, which leads to better cognitive, mental and physical health. For many seniors, this means an increase in happiness, less anxiety and less depression. United Way does a really great job of ensuring these important programs are accessible in communities that really need them—whether it’s a low-income neighbourhood, a rural or remote area or an ethnic enclave, a community with a high density of one ethnocultural group.

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5. Why is seniors isolation an important social and health issue that affects everyone?

Healthy seniors contribute to healthy communities by bringing a sense of energy to a community and lending a hand in a variety of meaningful ways. One way is through volunteering. Not only can they donate their talents to helping the community at large, but they also play an important role in helping other seniors break free from isolation, too.

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