Since July, a small team of staff members at the Toronto Public Library (TPL) have been calling thousands of their senior customers to check in on them during the pandemic, and are aiming to reach 13,000 more seniors in the new year.
TPL began by calling around 10,000 library card holders, mostly aged 80 and over, to provide a “wellness check” and share information about the library’s new services, as well as offering assistance navigating resources.
“Feedback from our customers has been overwhelmingly positive,” says a post on the TPL's Health and Wellness blog.
“These conversations are casual chats on just about anything and everything – great reads, digital services, ebooks, holds, community services, cooking, cleaning and even the weather.”
Now and into next year, TPL staff will start calling 13,000 customers ages 70 to 79, reaching over 20,000 seniors through the program in total. The aim is to connect with seniors who are at risk of social isolation during the pandemic.
A senior quoted on the blog said the program offers “another way to help ease the pandemic’s effects. In fact, I think this kind of kindness is extremely newsworthy and deserves promotion,” they said.
Another senior called the service “a lifeline through hard times” and the “social upside to my day.”
But library staff are also reaping benefits from the interaction, says TPL: “Our staff are used to having in-depth conversations with customers about their interests and needs. So working on these calls has been incredibly rewarding for the team.”
"On my first day of calling, I had a great few hours on the phone. I got some real chatty ones, some very interesting seniors,” said library assistant Beverley.
“One was picking currants to make jam, another one told me about stamp collecting, others were just glad that the Library was reaching out to them."
Another library assistant, Stefanie, said she ended up chatting with a senior she purchased art from at an exhibit 12 years ago who recognized her voice. “What are the chances?” said Stefanie. “An added bonus to this project is that it has helped me feel connected to customers again."
As the pandemic drags on and colder weather restricts activities further, experts have warned that seniors are especially at risk of isolation and loneliness, which is often linked to a decline in physical and mental health.
Even before the pandemic forced people to physically distance from family and friends, social isolation was a major problem among seniors, with one 2014 government survey reporting that 50 percent of people over the age of 80 felt lonely.