Providing geriatric care and relief to long-term care (LTC) homes, several University of Toronto students have founded the Student Association for Geriatric Empowerment (SAGE). This initiative was inspired by the course HMB440 — Dementia, taught by Professor Franco Taverna and was formed in direct response to the dire situation in LTC homes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has affected residents at a disproportionately high rate.

SAGE connects with seniors through video calls, pen pals, and cards, and also supports frontline workers. The Varsity connected with several members of the group over email who shared their insights on the work of the organization.

Creating SAGE

Inspired by their experience in the university’s dementia course, Co-Founder and President Rowaida Hussein and her classmates sought to apply knowledge from their classroom directly to the ‘real world.’ The course touched on issues in LTC homes and allowed for students in the course to visit various care homes in the GTA as an opportunity to interact with and form relationships with seniors who lived at these homes. 

This unique hands-on experience was put on hold in March due to widespread lockdowns in response to the spread of COVID-19. Suddenly unable to visit their friends in the homes, the classmates started to support the workers, donating food and care packages. In addition, as many of SAGE’s executive team members and volunteers are recent 2020 graduates, they had more time to pursue SAGE as the pandemic dissolved other life plans that they had.

Co-Founder and Director of Education & Advocacy Saloni Gupta wrote that the lockdowns made it more difficult to figure out what residents and workers needed, particularly at a time when they are handling more urgent health and safety priorities.

The remote conditions of this group’s initiation, however, were “perhaps a blessing” because as they, too, had to stay at home, SAGE members developed a deeper understanding of the isolation that LTC residents face. SAGE members’ own isolation and transition to online communication made them more determined to find ways to safely reach out and overcome the barriers to socialization, such as lack of technology.

In the present situation, SAGE’s hope is to provide immediate support to LTC homes in Ontario during the pandemic — residents, families, and staff included. Vanessa Rezai-Stevens, one of SAGE’s communications executives, shared that SAGE has organized a variety of baked goods, beverages, self-care products, and personal protection equipment donations as a small gesture of appreciation to LTC staff.

For the seniors themselves, SAGE has launched a variety of social programs, including pen pals and companion calls over the phone and video. “It is crucial that we keep residents engaged and connected to the community, to avoid loneliness and anxiety,” Rezai-Stevens explained, especially since visiting has been severely restricted during the pandemic. 

Looking forward

In the long term, SAGE’s mission is to “promote a more individualized approach to caring for seniors and stress the need for a sense of ‘normal life’ in these facilities” through structural and social changes. 

Residents of LTC homes are given less freedom over how they choose to spend their time, as mealtimes and programs follow a strict daily schedule. The physical spaces of LTC homes, which often lack privacy and personalization, also contribute to their institutionalized nature. SAGE’s hope is for small-scale, homelike models to be implemented into new LTC facilities and adapted to current homes, according to Rezai-Stevens.

In the new year, SAGE’s goal is to expand its projects and reach more homes across the GTA as a means of enacting long-lasting change beyond the pandemic, which has already worsened the circumstances of these homes. One of SAGE’s new projects addresses the digital divide in these homes through fundraising to equip seniors with the technological needs to stay connected to their loved ones. 

Other potential projects include connecting seniors and elementary or high school students and facilitating virtual exercise or mindfulness classes. SAGE hopes to expand its work to seniors living in the community as well. One of SAGE’s communication executives, Katharine Berardinetti, added, “Truly, when guided by SAGE’s mission to support elderly people and frontline workers, the possibilities are endless.”