The women who teach kids knitting “have a ball,” Pat Lloyd says. What’s more, they bring balls of yarn to nursing homes to involve even more seniors. (Photo courtesy Friendship Blooms/KCHC)

By Jason Rehel, story producer and editor, AOHC

In the first week of December, the Patients First Act became law in Ontario. In the Act, “the promotion of health equity and development and implementation of health promotion strategies” is added to the mandate of Ontario’s 14 Local Health Integration Networks. To better imagine what this mandate could look like in action in primary health care, we’re bringing you stories about health promotion programs and health equity initiatives from AOHC member centres across the province. This week, we highlight a community-centred approach to combatting social isolation in Kingston.

Pat Lloyd is fresh from a session of Tech Tutors, where university students taught her how to Skype.

“I have a son and grandson in Newfoundland, and a great-grandson who’s almost three years old, who I’ve never met. I wanted to learn so I could see him,” she says with a smile.

Lloyd is a member of Friendship Blooms, the seniors-led volunteer program at Kingston Community Health Centres (KCHC), which the month-long Tech Tutors series grew out of. It’s one of the many branches of Friendship Blooms, whose vision is “to bring all ages of the community together in friendship to promote happy, healthy lifestyles.” Community development workers at KCHC support Friendship Blooms with training, space for events and meetings, expert guidance, and small budgets for program planning.

At its core, Friendship Blooms combats social isolation and loneliness by giving people a chance to connect with others while volunteering in meaningful roles. Some hear about the program through word of mouth. For others, occupational therapists, dietitians or other KCHC health providers can refer them directly to Friendship Blooms. For people who cannot get to the centre, volunteers bring the centre to them, visiting nursing homes to deliver yarn for knitting, good cheer, and a connection to the wider community that comes complete with a newsletter and regular check-in calls.

Dr. Verena Menec, a professor of Community Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba’s College of Medicine who’s examined the link between social ties and health for over a decade, says that efforts to address social isolation and loneliness are essential.

“They are health risks, and the risk is really as great as it is for lack of physical activity, obesity, or smoking,” says Dr. Menec. “With loneliness, there’s a lot of research that shows some basic mechanisms -- such as decreased immune system function, poorer sleep quality, and increased stress hormones -- can be linked directly to health problems.”

For the seniors involved in Friendship Blooms, though, the program’s benefits go far beyond protection from disease and chronic illnesses. For them, Friendship Blooms provides a basic and vital reward: friendships. The alternative – feeling disconnected, isolated and aimless – is something Lloyd says she’s all too familiar with.

“I was home with my husband, and my kids were moved out and gone, and I wasn’t getting out that much,” she says. “It got to be that I was getting up in the morning, and just sitting in my chair either watching TV or knitting, and I was getting very depressed.”

What happened next changed everything for her: “I happened to meet a lady who belonged to the North End Penguins (a KCHC-based seniors’ social group), and I attended a few meetings with her. Then one of the Penguins found out I could knit, and asked me to join Friendship Blooms. Now we have six ladies who knit, and 12 children who we teach in our knitting group. We have a ball!”

Looking at the larger picture of social isolation, the good news is that research shows that developing, maintaining and renewing strong relationships can lead to longer, healthier lives. And the really good news is that KCHC is just one of 107 community-governed primary care centres across Ontario where staff work every day with community members to create an environment rich with opportunities for getting involved, forging friendships, and making a difference. 

“Feeling socially included, having a place where you feel like you belong and people to share it with – these factors directly promote better health,” says Gary Machan, strategic lead for Health and Wellbeing at the Association of Ontario Health Centres. “So when you connect primary care services that people look to when they’re sick directly to health promotion programs, like Friendship Blooms, that help keep them well, you can achieve a level of care that’s able to address chronic health issues and risk factors long before someone has to head to a hospital or long-term care.”