Elaine Ginter was over the moon when she was finally reunited her dog, Pepper. Pepper, a Bichon cross, was with Elaine for five years before they were separated. After living without Pepper for over a year at Porta Place, Elaine couldn’t be happier that GEF implemented a pet policy. Pepper is the very first furry resident of GEF Seniors Housing, and is fitting in quite well!

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The new pet policy, which was rolled out in January 2020, went through months and months of work to develop, to ensure that each pet that is brought into one of our communities fits perfectly into our family. There are certain criteria that a pet has to meet, but the overall goal is to enhance the quality of life of our seniors.

Pepper moved in with Elaine’s daughter while she was getting settled at Porta Place. It was hard for her, as Pepper is like the son she never had. Elaine could go over and visit Pepper, but it was never the same. After continuously asking about the pet policy, Elaine was truly on cloud nine when she was told Pepper was able to move in with her. “I felt like my life had a purpose again. It meant the world to me!”

Having Pepper back in her life full time means Elaine is getting out of the house more. She needs to take him out to do his business, and they go for walks and car rides. Pepper gives Elaine a reason to stay motivated and get active!

 

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“There were a few neighbours that were hesitant with this new policy and having a dog live in their building, but when they got to know Pepper and what a sweet dog he is, everyone was on board,” said Elaine. “When we get off the elevator, everyone says ‘Hi Pepper’ and gives him some love.”

It even took Pepper some time to adjust to his new living situation. “At my daughter’s house, he was so used to being let out the back or front door. Now we have to go in an elevator to go outside. He used to be scared of the elevator, but has now since gotten used to it. Whenever we get to our floor, he knows exactly which door to go to – which door is home!”

“I really do love it here at GEF! My neighbours, the staff – they are all so wonderful! Everyone is doing an amazing job, and I have settled in quite nicely,” said Elaine. “But it really has made my experience even better, having my Pepper here with me! I wouldn’t change it for the world!”

 

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“What I love about this place is the people.”

“The warmth here … that’s the reason I came.”

“The people are my style.”

These are just some of the heartfelt comments from tenants and residents at Sakaw Terrace as they shared their thoughts during Sakaw’s first anniversary celebration on November 6, 2019.

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More than 100 tenants, residents and GEF staff marked their first year together with individual cupcakes tea and coffee, and reminiscing on the past year, with plenty of laughter and a few tears from those who spoke.

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Site manager Manak Dhillon remembered holding interviews with prospective tenants and staff members in a trailer in the parking lot. He also remembered the last-minute flurry of permit approvals, making sure everything was in place before people moved in. Not everything went as smoothly as he had hoped, but “we got it all done – just in time.”

Assistant Manager Teslene Walters shared that she has been in every single suite more than five times. She remembered walking through the suites with just the framing done and then again – a few more times – when all the walls were up to make sure everything was perfect for each tenant and resident to move into their new home. She could tell you anything you would want to know about each room.

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Sakaw Terrace opened its doors on November 1, 2018 and the first residents moved in right away. Over the next few months, the apartments and lodge rooms filled up. Currently Sakaw Terrace is home to 175 seniors and is a vibrant community.

The official Grand Opening was held on February 27, 2019 and more than 160 tenants, residents, staff and guests joined in the festivities. You can read more about the Grand Opening in a previous blog story.

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On February 27, 2019, Sakaw Terrace (5815 Millwoods Road South, Edmonton) held its Grand Opening. Over 160 residents, tenants, guests and staff joined us to celebrate this very momentous occasion.

“The official opening of Sakaw Terrace is a very proud time for GEF Seniors Housing as it allows seniors living in the Mill Woods community an affordable, secure and friendly place to call home,” explained Raymond Swonek, CEO of GEF Seniors Housing.

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GEF Seniors Housing CEO, Raymond Swonek, speaking with Global News

MLA for Edmonton-McClung Lorne Dach MC’d the event and we heard wonderful speeches from the Honourable Amarjeet Sohi, Minister of Natural Resources; the Honourable Christina Gray, Minister of Labour; GEF Board Chair Karen Lynch and ASCHA’s Executive Director Irene Martin- Lindsay!

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The Minister of Natural Resources, Amarjeet Sohi

The day was full of big smiles and happy hearts. Residents and tenants who have already moved in were so excited to show off their new home. After the speeches were done, a ribbon cutting to announce the official opening commenced. Cake and refreshments were followed by tours of the building. Guests who went on the tours were impressed by the 70 lodge rooms and 88 apartments, two outdoor courtyards, a communal greenhouse, a theatre room, a salon, a bistro, underground and above ground parking and much more!

Seven years from concept to occupation, on November 1, 2018, GEF opened the doors to welcome the first Sakaw Terrace residents. This carefully planned project adopted an Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) collaborative partnership approach to construction.  “What this means is that everyone has some skin in the game. The IPD contract has ten parties signed on plus GEF Seniors Housing. All ten of the IPD parties have put their profits on the line for the duration of the construction, which keeps everyone invested in finding those efficiencies and keeping everything on schedule” explains Doug Kitlar, Director of Facility Management. By using this method, the project was able to be completed ahead of schedule and under budget!

The building is currently 90% full and hoping to be at 100% in the next few months. Residents and tenants are feeling at home living at Sakaw Terrace. “I just love the new building. The meals are wonderful and the sugar cookies are just delightful” said a lodge resident. An apartment tenant mentioned “it is my first time in community living and I am more than over the moon. The building, the staff, there is nothing not to like.” One other apartment resident said “I like my apartment. Everything is lovely. It’s beautiful. I like my privacy, but I never feel alone here.”

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When Alanna Cyre started with GEF Seniors Housing as a Dining Room Attendant turned Supervisor five and a half years ago, she would have never guessed she would switch to a Recreation Coordinator at McQueen Place. Over a year into the position, she loves every minute of and is discovering new things every day.

“I stepped in when the Recreation Coordinator was away for a bit. I realized how much I enjoyed the difference between Dining Room Supervisor and Recreation [when it came to] getting to know the residents in a different way. Really learning what they are passionate about and then when the opportunity arose for me to take on this position, I was very excited to take a step forward and continue on what I was doing to help the residents”.

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The role of the ten Recreation Coordinators located in all of our lodges is to plan and oversee the activities and events at the lodges and apartments. They coordinate a monthly calendar of age appropriate activities, outings and special events for the residents to enjoy, such as bingo, card games, entertainment, birthday parties, exercise classes, bus outings, religious meetings, pub nights and more!

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Recreational activities geared for seniors have been proven to provide emotional, physical, and cognitive benefits. “I think [recreational programming] is really important because it helps with their Quality of Life. I’ve seen seniors at other facilities [and] they don’t have as many activities as what GEF has to offer”.

“You can see how excited and happy the residents are to be able to do these activities. If an activity gets cancelled because someone is sick or a volunteer has to cancel last minute and no one else can take over, you see their disappointment because they were really looking forward to be able to do something”, Cyre says. “At the lodge, they have a harder time, getting out as much, they aren’t as mobile. So to be able to have all those activities inside the building, so that they don’t have to go far, is great! They can walk down the hallway or go down to the basement to do these activities and still feel the comfort of their own home and not have to worry.”

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When a new resident moves in, Cyre meets with them multiple times within the first few weeks to let them know of the programs the building has in place and helps them to get to know some of the other residents. Some residents aren’t quite ready to make that jump right away and others fit right in. At the lodge, they use the buddy system for new residents to get acquainted. She will often introduce them to more active residents who can show them the ropes a bit. This makes them feel more comfortable and when it comes to meal time, because they had that previous connection and know a friendly face or two, they don’t feel so alone.

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“Working at GEF has been very eye opening to see the difference between isolated seniors and how to [combat] that isolation. Whether it’s doing one-on-ones with residents or getting them involved with group activities, we like to figure out when new residents move in, what activities they like to do and what they used to do before they moved here. If they liked to do certain activities that aren’t normally ran here, then we will try to introduce those activities so that other people can learn to play them.… It’s really helping their Quality of Life and seeing how much of a difference it makes to the seniors”.

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Since starting with GEF Seniors Housing in 2017, Madison Black has bounced between multiple GEF location including Central Services, Pleasantview Place, and Montgomery Place. She is working to develop positive initiatives that she hopes will address many of the challenges faced by seniors when they experience social isolation. Pleasantview Place was being used as the first pilot site for the program because of its size and its integration of both lodge units and apartments. Black’s pilot project has a very simple and direct objective.

“My goal is to reach socially isolated seniors through recreational programing, community support resources and to help build a sense of community throughout the building” says Black about the Resident Buddy program. The program will act as a welcome-committee for seniors moving into GEF Seniors Housing buildings, offering a chance for neighbours to get to know the new members of the community.

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In addition to the welcome-committee activities, the Resident Buddy program also opens up volunteering opportunities for individuals living in GEF Seniors Housing buildings. The volunteering opportunities that the seniors join can either be at a GEF Seniors Housing site, directly positively affecting their friends and neighbours, or out in the larger community. Black explains she’s developed close relationships with many of the local senior centres in Edmonton to help increase more opportunities for residents living in GEF Seniors Housing buildings to find those meaningful connections and opportunities to contribute something back.

“I want to show [the seniors] how valuable they are to the community and the building through volunteering opportunities,” says Black.

In addition to the Resident Buddy Program, Black is also developing a program that will bring in individuals to befriend seniors experiencing social isolation. The Friendly Visitor Program is still in development and will soon see connections being made between GEF Seniors Housing residents and community volunteers.

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“[The Friendly Visitor Program] offers companionship to seniors that are feeling isolated,” says Black. “It will give the seniors someone to talk to, confide in, share stories with, and it gives the seniors something to look forward weekly. I want to provide support and resources to seniors that may be facing everyday barriers.”

The programs Black continues to help develop encompass one only aspect to her work. She and the other Community Supports team members schedule regular times to visit different sites for seniors to drop-in with questions or just sit and talk. Black has also developed a calendar system that helps address the language barriers in some of the buildings.

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“Because GEF Seniors Housing has such a large spectrum of languages throughout the building, I started to offer a calendar translation services,” says Black. “This service allows seniors to request their monthly activity calendar translated into their preferred language. It is my hope that this would encourage all of our seniors to participate in daily activities.”

 

One of the things that surprises Cheryl Ackimenko the most about the Community Supports program with GEF Seniors Housing is how often individuals call the team’s main phone line looking for assistance. She points out how every one of GEF Seniors Housing’s buildings has posters up in common areas giving information about the Community Supports program with all relevant contact information. Some individuals contact the Community Supports team even before they’re in a position of needing assistance.

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“One gentleman, who recently called, moved in to his apartment a few days earlier and said he does not need any support now, but wanted to learn about services in the community should he need them in the future,” recalls Ackimenko. “He was pleasantly surprised the Community Support program was available and so accessible to him.”

Ackimenko’s previous career as an Outreach Worker, made her the perfect fit to oversee the Community Supports team while the team’s original manager, Shanika Donalds, completes her temporary leave. Ackimenko managed multiple buildings around GEF Seniors Housing for five years before moving to her position as the interim Community Supports Manager, where she oversees the team of Outreach Workers and the individual projects each is working on. The Community Supports team is made up of Nicole Smith, Madison Black and Marita Gronberg.  “This team does an amazing job providing support, as they are all passionate about helping seniors increase their Quality of Life.” Though many of the referrals that come to the Community Supports team are straight from the individuals looking for help, there are still those which come from other members of the GEF Seniors Housing community.

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“[The referral] may be a tenant who has a concern about their neighbor in the building and they want an outreach worker to offer information about the program to the neighbor,” explains Ackimenko. “It is great to see a sense of community being built through connections with neighbors.”

Much of the work the Community Supports does involve one-on-one consultations to identify the roots of the hardships the individuals are experiencing. Many seniors face issues around social isolation, which contain a range of debilitating mental and physical health detriments that can seriously affect a person’s quality of life. It’s during the one-on-one work that Ackimenko experiences people opening up about things.

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“Recently, when assisting a woman who wanted help with decluttering her home and connecting to her community, she shared her story of how she came to GEF a few years ago,” says Ackimenko. “She was renting a house with a roommate but the relationship with the roommate deteriorated to the point where she had to move out quickly. She was very grateful that she was able to find housing within GEF Seniors Housing during this stressful time of her life. She moved in to her own apartment within GEF Seniors Housing and has felt safe every day since then. She is again happy that GEF Seniors Housing has a program to support her with her needs.”

Sharing experiences and personal stories isn’t uncommon for the Community Supports team. Part of the work of understanding what’s affecting a person’s quality of life stems from the person’s experiences. Ackimenko cherishes when people are able to open up to her and respects the amount of faith people are able to put into her and her team.

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“As a Community Outreach worker, on the first visit, it is an opportunity to get to know the person and build trust,” says Ackimenko.” You learn a lot about the person and their unique needs as they share their past experiences with you and the challenges they are facing now. Often they are experiencing loneliness and isolation at this time in their life. The second visit is always welcomed, as a relationship begins to build. Helping seniors navigate their needs to increase their quality of life and reduce their social isolation is very rewarding.”

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The expression “every day is different” is often overused. In the case of Marita Gronberg, Community Supports Outreach Worker with GEF Seniors Housing, the expression takes on a whole new level of meaning. She explains that her role in the Community Supports team sees her making those one-on-one connections with people living in GEF Seniors Housing buildings and building the kinds of relationships where she’s able to identify what’s missing in a person’s life and how her area of expertise can help them.

“Some days I spend making phone calls and referrals, other days I am out visiting people in their homes within the GEF Seniors Housing community,” says Gronberg. “There are a variety of concerns residents bring forward during conversation, anywhere from the topics of experiencing abuse to the need of support for housecleaning.”

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The foundation of trust Gronberg builds with the people she works one-on-one with is crucial to ensuring they receive the supports they need. She identifies social isolation as being one of the most pervasive issues that many seniors face. Research has shown that social isolation’s damaging effects extend far past simply having no one to talk to. The mental and physical health detriments seniors experience when isolated can seriously affect their quality of life and include an increased risk of cognitive decline, dementia, increased blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease.

“This isolation makes it difficult for seniors to be aware of the resources available to them that can improve their quality of life and independence.  Community Supports breaks through the wall of isolation, meeting people where they are at, and creating a support for someone they may not have had in a long time.”

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The kinds of issues Gronberg has helped people work through include finding transportation solutions for people who can no longer drive, working on finance issues with people trying to live on a low-income, and even more serious mental health issues such as hoarding disorders and depression. She recounts a story about working with a woman living with depression and some of the challenges she helped her overcome.

“She no longer had interest in any activities, lost her appetite, found no feelings of happiness, felt she had no reason to live, and only wanted to sleep,” recalls Gronberg. “She reached out to Community Supports and was able to share everything she has been experiencing and feeling without any judgment in return. She said the biggest thing she needed was just to talk to someone, and know that she is not alone with these thoughts and feelings. Within another month of taking the medications from her doctor, she was back to feeling like her normal self. She was so happy to have had someone to listen to her during her darkest time.”

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Gronberg knows how hard it can be for people to open up and ask for help. Seniors especially have this difficulty because they often don’t know what’s available to them and how easy it is to access what are often free or low-cost services and solutions to many issues they face. Gronberg’s worked hard to earn a good reputation around GEF Seniors Housing and continues working with people one-on-one to ensure they’re living with a good quality of life.

“Each time someone allows me into their home and personal space, and opens up to me about their deep and personal experiences,” says Gronberg. “It is always a high honor and privilege.”

Janet was never one for napping. Shortly after moving into Canora Gardens in February, 2018, she decided to take a quick rest in the afternoon. She woke up a few hours later, realizing that this was the first long and deep nap she had taken in years.

“I told my daughter and she howled because she’s never seen me nap!” Janet says with a wide smile. “I remember waking up and thinking, ‘oh, this is what it’s like to relax.’”

Moving into Canora Gardens has changed a lot about Janet’s day-to-day life. Even in the short time she has lived in the GEF Seniors Housing building, she says she already feels more at home here than she has anywhere else in the past 20 years. Though it took some time to finally move in, Janet believes that being able to call Canora Gardens home was well worth the wait.

“I would have waited another two or three years if it meant I was living somewhere as great as this,” Janet says. “I applied even before the applications were technically open. I was approved in about four days.”

Janet saw photos from Canora Gardens before it experienced its 2012 fire and was immediately drawn to the building. She was living in another apartment building close to the city’s west-end, but wanted to be further west so she could live closer to her daughter. Janet remembers the first few interactions she had with GEF Seniors Housing staff

“You don’t get that kind of respect everywhere,” says Janet. “I felt immediately welcomed by everyone working here.”

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Seeing the show suite at Canora Gardens impressed both Janet and her daughter. They were both immediately drawn to the counter space and cabinets in the kitchen. Living with celiac disease means Janet has to do a lot of her own cooking so having a spacious kitchen with full sized appliances was important.

In addition to the full kitchen, Janet and her daughter immediately noted how safe and secure Canora Gardens is. She immediately noted that all the locks in Canora Gardens are set with a fob and not with the typical key system in most older apartment buildings. She remembers back to her previous building where there were serious issues with break and enters.

“It got to the point where I was piling up chairs against my door,” explains Janet. “Now, I live with a sense of serenity. I’m actually able to sleep now because I feel so safe.”

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Janet’s positive spirit is seeing her already looking to make connections within her community. She’s never been one to shy away from meeting new people and is even exploring the larger neighbourhood to help keep her busy. She’s even starting to look ahead, knowing that as she ages she won’t be able to live totally on her own. Janet laughs as she points out that she already has her next GEF Seniors Housing building picked out.

“I got to see Meadowlark Place and I told my daughter, this is where I want to live next when the time comes,” says Janet. “For now, I am completely happy here. It feels like I’ve been given a new lease on life.”

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Around 30 years ago, Judy learned how to make dog figurines out of wool and wire hangers. She learned the craft from another woman who lived with her back when she called Strathcona Place home. Now living at Queen Alexandra Place lodge, she has become the teacher, showing the craft to her neighbour, Verna. The two ladies don’t make the dogs for just anyone, though. The pair makes the dogs for any of their neighbours who go to the hospital overnight and to the women fighting breast cancer and living at Compassion House.

“We just wanted these people to know that someone cares about them,” says Verna. “The dogs are a lot of fun to make and we get such nice letters from the people we give the dogs to. My grandchildren just love them too.”

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The ladies have the craft down so tight, Verna can finish one dog every two days while the more experienced Judy can finish a dog over the course of a good hockey game. The process starts with the wire hanger bent in the shape the dog will take. Judy’s  step-son bends the hangers for the ladies and drops off groups of them whenever the ladies are running low. The wool is then tied in a pom-pom style bow and tied off to hold its shape. The bows then line the wire hanger frame and are bundled together. The dogs’ ears are tied in the same pom-pom fashion, only with looser threads to mimic the bounce of floppy ears. Beaded eyes and a nose are then hot glued on to give the dog its face, and ultimately its personality.

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Before Christmas, the ladies donated 24 dogs to Compassion House. Two months later, at the beginning of March, they donated another 22. This is in addition to the dogs given to their neighbours in the lodge and to their families.

“My granddaughter is an Assistant Manager over at Julio’s Barrio and she gave a dog to one of the servers she worked with and the server loved it so much she started to cry,” says Judy. “It’s amazing how attached people get to these little dogs.”

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The ladies see the attachment to the dogs in many of the people they give them to. One gentleman from the lodge was given one before he went to the hospital, where he sadly later passed away. The man was so attached to the dog that his family put it in the casket with him. This kind of emotional attachment and positive influence is far from rare for people who receive the dogs.

“We don’t think about the cost while we’re making them,” says Verna. “All we think about is what it’s going to do for people.”

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Even the ladies grow attached to some of their dogs. The pair has started naming many of them before they’re given out. One with orange and blue ribbons that was given to Recreation Coordinator Pavi Lally was named Oscar, after Pavi’s favourite player on the Edmonton Oilers Oscar Klefbom. Another shaggy brown one that Judy has grown particularly attached to is named Rags.

“I almost lost Rags on the way down here,” Judy says with a laugh. “One of the ladies saw Rags while I was coming down to the dining room. I’m saving Rags for my Granddaughter. The wire frame and bead eyes aren’t the best for small children.”

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The ladies have no plans on slowing down any time soon. How the gesture of making and giving one of these dogs to someone facing a hard time positively influences a person’s quality of life is very evident to Judy and Verna. Some of the future dog projects they have in mind are also a little ambitious.

“We were given this one set of wool, and it is just massive,” Judy says, holding out her arms expressing the size of the ball of wool. “We were thinking of using it to make a mom, and dad, and a whole litter of puppies. Make a little family for others to enjoy.”

Colleen Simpson started working with GEF Seniors Housing in 1994 and has worked at multiple sites all throughout the organization before landing at Cathedral Close, where she works as an Assistant Manager. One constant that she has noticed, right from her first position at the original McQueen Place, is that hoarding behaviour is prevalent in many seniors. While working at Central Services, former Director of Operations Greg Dewling suggested that Simpson join a group chaired by Sage Seniors Association looking at the problem of hoarding style behaviour.

In 2012, Simpson began working with the Edmonton Hoarding Coalition, a group made up of representatives from non-profit community organizations and people with lived hoarding behaviour experiences. The group’s mission includes looking more into hoarding behaviour, recognizing gaps in services and funding, identifying supports for clients, pinpointing the roles of community partners, and researching the statistics for community presentations. As Simpson explains, much of the information needed to properly address hoarding behaviours is severely lacking.

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“Much of the data we rely upon for our research is actual US based because the Canadian research simply doesn’t exist,” says Simpson. “Hoarding behaviour as a condition was only recognized in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) in 2013. Much of the research and recognition of this as a disorder is new. Even the research in the US only started about 20 years ago.”

A few facts that are known about hoarding disorder are that older adults are three times more likely to experience the behaviour than younger adults, men are more likely to exhibit the symptoms where women are more likely to seek out help, and that hoarding tendencies begin between ages 11 and 15. As part of working with other agencies to gather data through surveys of reported cases, the group conducted a survey in 2016 that looked at 257 individual cases. The stats have been compiled into presentations for other organizations to help increase the awareness and knowledge of the issue. Though Simpson is proud of the work done in the surveys and being gathered by the Coalition, she also knows where the research falls short.

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“The survey only covers reported cases of hoarding behaviour where individuals sought out help and accessed services,” says Simpson. “That leaves enormous gaps in unreported cases and cases where individuals didn’t seek help.”

Though there are other groups like the Edmonton Hoarding Coalition across Canada, Simpson points out that they are not consistent in other cities. She stresses that it’s going to be through the work of community focused groups that will spur more interest and better education around what constitutes hoarding disorders. Simpson explains that even some of her own assumptions from before her work with the Edmonton Hoarding Coalition has led her to inaccurate assumptions.

“I’ve made the call to support services about a hoarding issue and once the workers arrive, they tell me that’s it’s not a hoarding situation,” says Simpson. “Hoarding disorder is so much more than just accumulating things. It’s a whole range of behaviours that when combined, build to dangerous situations.”

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Dangers with hoarding situations in the home include blocking electrical outlets and heating vents which can lead to fire, piles of possessions toppling over causing injury, and blocking essential spaces like kitchens and washrooms. For seniors, the issue becomes more hazardous as many live with mobility restrictions and require mobility aids to get around their apartments. There are support services available such as Sage Seniors Association’s This Full House program, which sees outreach workers assisting seniors work through hoarding issues and maintain healthier living environments, but often times the call for an intervention comes much later than it should.

The Edmonton Hoarding Coalition’s goals include setting up a directory of services for people living with hoarding behaviours, even beyond decluttering and waste management. Simpson points out home trades such as plumbers and electricians often won’t work in homes where hoarding is occurring. Finding the services that can help a person while living in a hoarding situation will be key to ensuring they can continue living with a good quality of life.

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For Simpson, some of the most important impacts that the Edmonton Hoarding Coalition has had for her are working to change her own attitudes and assumptions and enlightening her as to what to look for when she suspects someone is living with a hoarding disorder.  Most important, though, is ensuring she remembers that who she is talking with is a human being.

“We don’t identify people as hoarders, people are not the condition that they are living with,” says Simpson. “Our seniors living with hoarding disorder, or any other condition that may need services and supports, deserve to live with a good quality of life. Without the right kind of data leading us in the best direction, it can be hard to know what are the best steps to take. We’re hoping that the work with the Edmonton Hoarding Coalition will establish that data set needed to increase awareness and work towards building a community that has a better understanding of how to help people living with hoarding disorder.”

Colleen Simpson (2)