Elise Stolte: Yoga by telephone — in a lonely world, hope comes from a simple thing

Volunteer yoga instructor Sonia SinhaVolunteer yoga instructor Sonia Sinha demonstrates modified movements in the gentle yoga classes she offers by phone and Zoom to seniors through SAGE. Photo by David Bloo /Postmedia

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I’m “squat walking” in my home office as directed — one hand on a chair for balance and my cellphone on speaker setting.

I can’t see volunteer instructor Sonia Sinha, but she’s speaking with pictures: “You’re just doing like a gorilla walk.”

This is gentle yoga for seniors — delivered in a way I would laugh at pre-pandemic. But now, with the one-year anniversary of the pandemic next week, it’s clear these programs have become a lifeline for those who use them.

“At first, it was real lonely,” said Lawrence Loyek, who lives on his own but has one good friend to call, and does yoga, a weekly coffee chat and a course on mental health on his iPad. These Zoom meetings made the difference, he said. “That’s what I need.”

Even before the pandemic, one in 10 Edmonton seniors said they rarely or never had someone they could turn to for help.

That same 2019 study organized by the Edmonton Seniors Coordinating Council found 20 per cent of the 720 seniors interviewed scored as lonely, and these were likely people who were caring for someone at home, had recently lost a spouse, had limited income or mobility, or were newcomers to Canada.


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That has been compounded by COVID-19 fear and restrictions and even as the news cycle shifted to vaccines and variants, these basic issues haven’t gone away. Programs on telephones are gaining popularity.

The yoga is easier to follow than I expect. I’m lost at reverse warrior but that’s my fault for scribbling notes. It’s nice to hear a friendly voice and when I chat with others after class, four out of 18 are on the phone. I join their coffee conversation later that week and they seem like they found their groove in this pandemic. They’re engaged, busy and curious.

“It’s been a godsend,” said Barb Beirnes, who counted 35 Zoom calls on her calendar in January. She participates in each of them by telephone after getting the calendars by mail from SAGE Edmonton and the Seniors Centre Without Walls.

“The Zoom meetings are great,” said Karen Bruce, who uses a wheelchair. “I used to get together with some girlfriends on Fridays and we’d have coffee. Well, we do it over Zoom now.”

It’s so much easier, especially during the winter, she said. “It’s quite similar. We still all talk at the same time.”

Lawrence LoyekLawrence Loyek has found phone and video-based programs to be a lifeline as the pandemic stretches on. Greg Southam/Postmedia

Loyek misses visiting in-person at the SAGE seniors association Downtown, but even a Zoom meeting gives him something to look forward to. On the weekend he goes for long walks with friends. “I feel happy and satisfied with my life right now.”

When I launched our focus on seniors and COVID-19 this winter and asked the community what we should focus on, two-thirds of the 650 people who wrote in urged me to focus on isolation, especially for seniors living alone in the community.


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Write about the long-term health impacts and strain, and about how others are coping, they said. Seniors have given up seeing family, volunteering and many other activities. Some talked about losing physical mobility during the months of confinement, and worried the confidence and independence they once had will never come back.

As the months pass, it feels like a slow battle to hang on and get creative. The phone-based or Zoom programs are not a cure-all.

People often put on a brave face. When outreach workers connect one on one, it’s clear many people still struggle, said Sheila Hallett, executive director of the Edmonton Seniors Coordinating Council, which did the previous research on isolation in partnership with several seniors organizations. She continues to study trends across the sector.

Many seniors had a good support network around them before the pandemic — had friends, were able to walk and get out, and had enough money for their needs. If that’s the case, “when these challenges come up, you can navigate and adapt,” said Hallett.

But if money was tight before, the rising price of groceries hurt. Others already struggled with anxiety, and one-quarter of seniors care for a spouse or dependant child. That increases the risk of isolation, she said. “Those type of things, if they were already an issue, the virus has just magnified the issue.”

At the coffee chat, the nine seniors take turns talking about how they’re doing one year into the pandemic. They’re writing plays about their lives, spending quality time outdoors, reconnecting with family by video. They’re stoic, even upbeat.


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“Were you quite totally surprised at our responses? Were you thinking we just sat around and were bored?” Beirnes asks me afterward.

Volunteer yoga instructor Sonia SinhaVolunteer yoga instructor Sonia Sinha demonstrates modified movements in the gentle yoga classes she offers by phone and Zoom to seniors through SAGE. David Bloom/Postmedia Photo by David Bloo /Postmedia

No, not totally surprised. But a little. I’m surprised at her, so connected with only a phone. Plus, I left with the same lightness of spirit that any good interview gives me and was reminded again of how important it is to build social moments into daily life.

Human connection is essential for health. When Hallett and the seniors council reviewed the scientific literature, they found studies showing people who are isolated are more likely to develop cognitive disorders, depression, cardiovascular problems and compromised immune function. Other studies have put the health effects of isolation on par with heavy smoking and alcohol abuse.

Researchers at the Florida State University College of Medicine found loneliness put people at 40 per cent greater risk for dementia and a study from Newcastle University in the United Kingdom found that loneliness increased the risk of stroke or coronary heart disease by 30 per cent.

Beirnes was matter of fact about her situation. “We’ve explored things we could do and we’ve reached out,” she said. “Because no one is going to do it for us.”

“We have been trying to get people we know to give this a try. Some of them do, but it’s definitely a personal thing. You can’t force a person just because you think it’s wonderful and great,” she said.

“We certainly aren’t able to run downtown and see everybody, sit and work on the jigsaw puzzles,” she added. “Once we get vaccinated, things will open up more. But I don’t allow myself to get too excited because then the waiting is even longer. Like they say, stay in the moment. That’s what we try to do.”



This article is part of Groundwork II: Seniors & COVID-19, an Edmonton Journal pilot project in engagement journalism. Join the mailing list and add your voice at edmontonjournal.com/groundwork.

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