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.
“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.
“[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.
“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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”