Elders Circle of Care – A Lifeline of Support

By Sage Birchwater –

Most people in Williams Lake are probably unaware of the wide range of services provided by the Cariboo Friendship Society.

Wendy Fontaine, Elders Circle of Care co-ordinator, Cora Fraleigh, Aboriginal wellness co-ordinator, Eagle’s Nest resident Elvis Baptiste, and Tamara Garreau, social programs supervisor, work as a team to improve the quality of life for urban elders in Williams Lake. Photo: Sage Birchwater

Executive director Rosanna McGregor and social programs supervisor Tamara Garreau describe some of the work they do.

“Our primary function is to provide support services for urban Aboriginal people,” says McGregor. These services, staffed by 80 employees, are packaged into more than a dozen programs that include a transition house for women and children, addictions and mental health outreach, pregnancy outreach, shelter services, early childhood development, Aboriginal supported child development, Aboriginal infant development, cultural based preschool, Aboriginal child and youth mental health services, family ties visitation services, and last but not least, an Elders Circle of Care program.

Garreau offers a tour of the main Friendship Centre building at the corner of Yorston Street and South Third Avenue. Upstairs above the Hearth Restaurant and the Native Arts and Crafts Store are 17 rental housing units and 30 emergency shelter beds.

“We are full to capacity most nights,” she says, describing how homeless men are sheltered on one floor and the women and children on another.

Staff strive to maintain a high standard of cleanliness. Rooms are completely stripped, disinfected, and steam cleaned once a week, and a thorough janitorial cleaning occurs daily. Clients are given three meals a day and offered laundry services.

Heather Burnett, shelter co-ordinator for 20 years, says the emergency shelter policy is “minimal barrier.” That means clients who have been drinking or are high on drugs are still given accommodation, but drug and alcohol use on the premises is strictly forbidden. There is also zero tolerance for violence or aggression.

Further down the street at 228 Third Avenue South stands the four-storey state-of-the-art housing facility known as the Eagle’s Nest. Built in 2010, it has 33 apartments mostly occupied by seniors. On the main floor next to the front entrance, a door opens to a small activity room. Inside, Gary Stieman, Richard Jules, Al Downey, Edward Baptiste, and Elvis Baptiste sit around a table drinking coffee.

They are joined by Aboriginal wellness co-ordinator Cora Fraleigh and elders’ circle of care program co-ordinator Wendy Fontaine.

The atmosphere in the room is relaxed and friendly. Fontaine works on a puzzle on the dining room table as the men sip their coffee. Gary, Richard, Edward, and Elvis are Eagle’s Nest residents, while Al Downey lives elsewhere in town and has stopped by for a visit.

Fontaine says the activity room is a busy place.

“We have coffee every morning and it’s a place for people to connect,” she says. “We have a lot of elders in the building and most come every day. A lot of elders in the community stop by to see how everyone is doing.”

Elvis Baptiste, who hails from TsiDeldel (Redstone), is a huge Montreal Canadiens fan. Carey Price is his favourite. You rarely see him without his Habs cap and #31 jersey.

“This is where Elvis starts his day,” says Fontaine.

She describes her program as building essential relations with elders. “We bridge the gaps in the urban setting for the elders. They are our cultural teachers.”

Elders are taken on outings to the countryside to gather plants and make medicines. Youth come to the Elders’ Circle to learn arts and crafts and listen to stories. Twice a week Fontaine cooks up a hearty mid-day meal, which the elders and community members look forward to.

A couple of Gary Stieman’s drums hang from a centre post in the elders’ amenity room. In recent years, he has found his voice as a traditional singer, and often leads prayers and blessings with his drum. Connecting with the Elders Circle is a vital part of his daily routine. It’s an important opportunity for fellowship, he says.

Cora Fraleigh says the Elders Circle provides a safe place for women to gather. She says the Grandmother Circle gives the opportunity to practise crafts and beading. “It’s a way to get all the women together,” he says.

The Elders Circle program has worked with the Cariboo Chilcotin Partners for Literacy to record and publish the stories shared by the elders. A small booklet, Reaching into the Past, was published in 2015 and contains a collection of these stories.

Tamara Garreau says one of the priorities of the Elders Circle of Care program is to keep the elders from being isolated.

“The amenities room provides a gathering place for elders, where staff do more than just offer a space. Support workers do home visits and drive elders to appointments. Foot care practitioners do all the feet of the elders, which is particularly important for those with diabetes.”

Rosanna McGregor says financial literacy is another key area of learning her programs are addressing. “Social isolation and loneliness are health risks and we strive to help our urban elders be as healthy and happy as possible.”

Sage Birchwater moved to the Cariboo-Chilcotin in 1973. He spends his time freelancing, authoring books, and with Caterina, hanging out with their dog and cat, gardening, and being part of the rich cultural life that is the Cariboo-Chilcotin Coast.

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