Snowfall activates a flurry of caring

While a majority of Cowichan residents are capable of digging themselves out of snowfall like the one that arrived Wednesday, others — many of them seniors — are not. Fortunately, Cowichan has an ad hoc network in place to provide assistance. - Andrew Leong
While a majority of Cowichan residents are capable of digging themselves out of snowfall like the one that arrived Wednesday, others — many of them seniors — are not. Fortunately, Cowichan has an ad hoc network in place to provide assistance.
— image credit: Andrew Leong

Cowichan seemed to grumble en masse when it realized it had to break out the winter boots and snow shovels again this week.
But snowflakes and freezing temperatures — which are likely to stick around for the weekend — are more than simply inconvenient for a number of valley residents.
Homeless Cowichanians have filled Warmland House almost to capacity — even with the opening of the shelter’s extra emergency beds.
And seniors advocates around the valley have jumped into action to ensure vulnerable aging citizens aren’t forgotten.
“The biggest risks (for seniors during cold snaps) are isolation, loneliness, and fear,” said Jacquie Smith, executive director at the Cowichan Seniors Resource and Support Society.
Icy sidewalks, poor driving conditions and the loss of electricity make it difficult for home-visit supports to reach those who need them, and for seniors to venture out of doors.
That’s where advocates like Smith come in.
“During the last snow storm, for example, there were a lot of power outages on Boys Road, so we were calling seniors there to make sure they were alright and let them know when the hydro was expected to be back on,” she said.
“For some people we know are at risk, we’ve already got telephone buddies. A good telephone tree helps and we’re hoping to improve on that, because a lot of fear can be helped simply by knowing they’re really not alone and by themselves.”
There’s no official group or partnership responsible for this kind of action that Smith knows of.
Rather, it’s more of an informal network of vulnerable citizen advocates — including Canadian Mental Health Association outreach worker Chuck McCandless and Duncan Garage Showroom owner John Falkner — who take personal responsibility for the wellbeing of all Cowichanians.
“Certainly around Christmas, we’re watching and noting who’s alone,” Smith said. “As a community we do very well, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need a better cold-weather initiative. There are still those who slip through the cracks and we’re trying to address that.”
Ordinary Cowichanians can certainly help, she added.
“Don’t wait until something like this (weather) happens -— get to know your neighbours. You are your brother’s keeper. We’re all responsible for one another, and a good neighbour policy goes a long way. Just remember to treat others the way you hope to be treated later on in your life.”
Warmland House, meanwhile, has 40 beds available right now for homeless folks.
For a variety of reasons, others remain outdoors.
“I check in on the people who can’t stay at the shelter — people who burned that opportunity though some behaviour problem — and check in with the people that tent and couch surf and live in the streets. I put people in motels quite a bit,” McCandless said.
It’s a poor solution, he says.
“The need (for affordable housing) is actually already behind. We don’t need it today — we needed it years ago,” he said.
“I think grassroots efforts have been really effective in the past few years. It’s what got Warmland built. I guess it’s like Egypt — if you go down and protest enough, you can get people to listen to you. But if you sit back and wait for a program to look after you, it probably won’t get done. It’s up to you and me.”
And the concern is more than a social one — being homeless or vulnerable in freezing temperatures is deadly.
“People should know the safety of seniors is different than any other risk group,” Smith pointed out.
“The reality is seniors freeze quicker. Just like when there’s a heat wave seniors dehydrate quicker, they freeze quicker, they get frostbite quicker. Their circulation isn’t as good as it used to be. And this kind of weather is not something we’re accustomed to in the valley.”

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