Fourth-year Schulich student behind non-profit that helps seniors in isolation

A fourth-year BBA student at Schulich School of Business is making a difference in the lives of seniors across the nation, and the significance of his work has been highlighted during the coronavirus pandemic.

Mahad Shahzad

Mahad Shahzad

Mahad Shahzad (BBA ’20) is the visionary behind the non-profit organization Chatting to Wellness, a service that matches volunteers with seniors who are feeling isolated and lonely. The initiative – inspired by a trip home to Pakistan one summer where Shahzad observed his own grandparents living an isolated lifestyle, despite living with a large family – aims to boost mental health in seniors through weekly in-person visits and now, online chatting sessions.

After his visit home, Shahzad committed to finding a way to help seniors. He began to research existing supports, and discovered it was a service area that was very much lacking. He was also surprised to learn there is an alarmingly high rate of suicide for seniors.

“Of all the resources I found, none of them were specifically for seniors despite the high risks (to their mental health),” he said. “There was nothing dedicated for mental health support for seniors, and I thought ‘That’s not right.’”

Chatting to Wellness launched in July 2017 and Shahzad enlisted students from postsecondary institutions across Ontario to volunteer as “chatters” and commit to visiting seniors at retirement residences registered for the service. Chatters, who must first go through a screening and training process before they are placed at a location and assigned a senior, commit to a 16-week term in line with the postsecondary semester system.

Initially an in-person service with once-a-week visits, Chatting to Wellness had to quickly pivot to an online platform when the government issued social distancing rules in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. This change in service model means Shahzad was able to expand Chatting to Wellness’s reach to all of Canada, giving seniors across the nation an opportunity to connect with and talk to someone.

Now, volunteers engage in phone chats with seniors who have signed up for the service online. Seniors are able to schedule a 45-minute chat between 6 and 9 p.m. EST, Monday to Friday. Seniors can either sign up directly or have a family member or caretaker sign up for a call on their behalf by visiting www.chattingtowellness.ca/phonechats or by calling 437-702-2025.

“A lot of seniors just want to talk to somebody. Imagine how, especially now, how stressed and worried some of these isolated seniors feel,” said Shahzad. “Even if our chatters can’t solve their problems, the seniors still feel better by talking about them and sharing their thoughts with someone else. A lot of seniors feel devalued in society, and it’s very disheartening. Many of them are just looking for someone to listen to them.”

By early 2020, Chatting to Wellness had provided more than 3,000 chatting sessions.

Shahzad is rigorous in tracking responses from seniors who have used the service, and says the benefit is “huge.” He says each senior is asked before and after their sessions how they are feeling on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the most positive. What he’s found is that seniors, on average, move up that scale by 2 points after the session.

He also reports that 90 per cent of seniors become more engaged with their communities – largely meaning their long-term care home or retirement facility – after participating in three consecutive chat sessions.

“All of a sudden, these seniors are becoming more engaged socially with their environments,” he said, adding that the organization speaks regularly with facility recreation and activities planners who observe and report on these changes.

Shahzad says seniors that are the most in need of these services are the most difficult to reach, as often they are not regularly online. He hopes to work with local organizations and community groups to spread the word.

Though he hopes to continue the online format of Chatting to Wellness post-pandemic, Shahzad says there are costs associated with running the self-funded program, including paying for phone lines and other infrastructure. The organization is actively seeking donations.

For more information, visit https://www.chattingtowellness.ca/phonechats or call 437-702-2025.

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