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Seniors programs hit by funding loss

Dorothy Canham, a volunteer senior ambassador with Burnaby Neighbourhood House, chats with Niels Thomsen at a weekly lunch it holds as part of efforts to provide social contact for isolated seniors. The program needs new funders after it learned its three-year grant from the United Way will not be renewed at the end of June. - Wanda Chow/NewsLeader
Dorothy Canham, a volunteer senior ambassador with Burnaby Neighbourhood House, chats with Niels Thomsen at a weekly lunch it holds as part of efforts to provide social contact for isolated seniors. The program needs new funders after it learned its three-year grant from the United Way will not be renewed at the end of June.
— image credit: Wanda Chow/NewsLeader

It's a lunch date Niels Thomsen hates to miss.

For the past two-and-a-half years, Thomsen, 88, has been attending the weekly lunches for seniors at Burnaby Neighbourhood House. It's a regular gathering organized through its seniors outreach ambassador program aimed at helping vulnerable, isolated seniors build relationships in the community.

"It's makes the difference between sitting at home or getting out and talking to people," said the retired carpenter.

"I would miss it terribly if that was to discontinue."

The program is one of many assisting seniors that will no longer be funded by the United Way once their grants end. In the case of Burnaby Neighbourhood House (BNH), the program is run on $36,000 a year through a three-year grant that will not be renewed when it expires at the end of June, said BNH executive director, Antonia Beck.

She understands the United Way has tough choices to make after it fell short of its fundraising targets. And Beck is actively working to try to find new sources of funding to keep the program going.

Still, she was "shocked when I got the letter" from the United Way since she knows what a difference the program makes in the community.

It serves as a bridge between isolated seniors and other resources they can benefit from. For people who are isolated due to health or mobility issues, or the fact they've lost a spouse and have no family nearby, or are new to the country and don't speak English, it welcomes them to the wider community.

And ultimately, studies have shown that socially-connected seniors tend to live longer, said Beck.

In Thomsen's case, he lost his driver's licence after he suffered a stroke about three years ago. With no family, ever since then he was pretty much housebound and dependent on neighbours to take him grocery shopping.

When volunteer senior ambassador Tony Lai heard about Thomsen, he contacted him and brought him out to the lunches.

The program has also been a lifeline for Lidio Baldeon, 71, who didn't know what he was going to do after he lost his job as a trucker last year.

Separated from his wife and his kids grown, he faced having little social contact without co-workers to talk with or a routine to follow every day.

Then he wandered into BNH's Imperial Street offices where he found someone to help him fill out the paperwork for employment insurance. Without the program around, Baldeon figures he'd be "sitting in a mall all day alone."

Over at Burnaby Seniors Outreach Services Society, they're due to see $50,000 cut from their revenues when their United Way grant expires, also at the end of June.

The money pays for its family caregiver program and makes up about half of its overall budget, said the society's program director, Linda Comba.

That program helps people who are caring for chronically-ill or disabled family members or those nearing the end of their lives. Three-quarters of its 500 or so clients each year are older children caring for parents while a quarter are seniors themselves caring for spouses, siblings or their own parents.

"It's a huge task to be a caregiver and a highly stressful event in a person's life," said Comba. The program tries to make it easier through workshops on how to navigate the health care system, a caregiver resource fair, and a support group, all facilitated by gerontologists.

"We have people who say, 'we don't know how you do what you do on $50,000,'" she lamented. "We're doing our best to be creative and try to find some way to keep it functioning [without the United Way funding]."

Michael McKnight, president and CEO of United Way of the Lower Mainland, noted the three-year funding commitments were time-limited and "it isn't realistic to continue indefinitely."

In all, the non-profit is not renewing a total $1.6 million in grants to seniors service providers.

While its overall revenue is positive because of government partnerships, fundraising is getting harder and it's seen a decline in money raised over the past five or six years, McKnight said.

The United Way partnered with the provincial government to start the Better at Home program which will provide housekeeping and transportation help to seniors in need.

"Nobody likes to lose funding, but it's the reality of the kind of work we do, revenue will never always remain the same," he said. "There's always a lot more demand than resources."

~ with files from Mario Bartel

wchow@burnabynewsleader.com

twitter.com/WandaChow

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