Words: Emma Brayley
Photography: Gabrielle Béland
Audio: Emma Brayley

“Which famous singer paid a hefty ransom when his son was kidnapped?”
“Oh, it’s the Italian one!”
“…”
“… Sinatra!”

There was cheering as a volunteer confirmed the answer. Everyone around the winning table got up to make their way towards the room next door, where an assortment of free items, mostly clothing, was waiting. Though this was the third group out of four to get their chance, there were still plenty of good quality items to go around at the bartering table.

This is the Boomer Café. Organized by the NDG Senior Citizens Council (NDGSCC), in collaboration with the NDG Food Depot, the weekly event held at the Montreal West United Church on Bannantyne Ave. North (though not affiliated with it) provides a free meal, and plenty of other activities to those over 50 years old.

They also organize yoga classes, and a monthly bartering event, where those who have items they no longer use can bring them in and take others. The goal of activities like trivia games is to make sure people are actively engaged during the café.

Martin Henderson Rae, known as Marty by his friends, is a regular at the Boomer Café.

You don’t have to do much, but you do have to do something to earn a chance at the goodies table.

“A lot of places, if you go to have lunch, you’re with 50 or 60 people and you have to be able to communicate as part of a group that’s already existing. Well, for our people, that’s sometimes too much,” said Sheri McLeod, NDGSCC’s executive director, while speaking about a similar service they offer to seniors 80 years old and up.

One of the biggest issues many older adults face is social isolation. McLeod said anything from self-medicating, to job loss and grief, or any combination of such factors, can lead individuals to retreat from society.

A 2013-2014 Health Canada report showed seniors living in isolation are at a higher risk of being victimized by elder abuse, of developing new or worsening mental health issues, and losing their social skills.

“If I don’t come out, I’ve been stuck in the house the last couple of years, medically speaking. So this is my chance to socialize other than in the pubs, which I don’t like. I don’t go to bars – never did. And where else do you go to talk to people?” said Ronnie Guay, one of the Boomer Café participants.

Guay is not the only one acutely aware of the lack of space available for community get-togethers. One of the main pillars of the NDGSCC’s work is lobbying for those in power to implement policies that recognize the importance of the community sector, and that fund it properly. The NDGSCC, which is part of the Centraide of Greater Montreal’s network, is a prime example of an organization that does all of its work on a relatively small budget.

“A lot of the core funding for civic groups that are tied to the city [is gone]. They are doing incredible work and are really underfunded,” said Kim Sawchuk, a Concordia University professor whose research focuses on how technology is affecting ageing. “A lot of them are staffed by female volunteers and people who give up their time.”

The NDGSCC itself has five women on staff according to their website, and about 70 volunteers according to McLeod.

LISTEN: Susan Munro, the coordinator of the Boomer Café, has seen the effects a loss of community can have on older adults.

 

In Montreal, researchers and activists alike have found one major obstacle preventing older adults from getting out of the house more often.

“Montreal is a very walkable city, but that’s only if you’re able-bodied. And, as we know, the transportation system is not accessible. They’re putting in more elevators in the metros, but that’s something that students and disability rights groups have fought for, and it has not been easy,” said Sawchuk.

Sheri McLeod is the executive director of the NDG Senior Citizens council.

According to that same Health Canada report, almost half of Canadians over 75 years old – about 1 million – live with a disability. A big challenge many older adults face is transportation to medical appointments.

While the NDGSCC does offer a medical transport service, not everyone is so lucky. Taking the bus can be cumbersome, while taking a taxi or an Uber can be expensive and impossible for those living on a fixed income.

On top of that, a main issue with certain modes of transportation, like Uber, is that elderly people are the least connected generation. According to Sawchuk, access is blocked because many seniors don’t own a smartphone, can’t pay for an expensive data plan, or simply don’t have a credit card.

LISTEN: Sheri McLeod explains the benefits of the NDG Senior Citizens Council’s medical transportation service. It serves about 325 clients every year.

 

While the situation may seem somewhat dire now, Sawchuk said she’s optimistic about the future of ageing in this city.

“I’m hopeful because I think the citizens of Montreal are passionate about their city, and that includes seniors. That means the city has to be responsive to that, and I think it will be,” she said.

In the meantime, those who have the chance to participate in programs like the Boomer Café will probably keep coming back. Ava Harriot, who’s been a part of these activities for the last five years, is a great example.

“I love helping out in the kitchen – no problem at all chopping vegetables, being part of the activities,” she said. “If I don’t come here, the rest of the week I feel sluggish. So, I come and take part in the yoga. I feel healthy, strong, energized.”

As the Boomer Café came to a close for another week, people started gathering together at tables. Some were pulling out a Scrabble board, while one of the participants began setting up a table where she helped people with their technology questions. A few others stuck around simply to chat, happy to have a chance to socialize with old and new friends alike.