ELORA – Small gestures make big impacts, like the words “You are loved” written in large letters with brightly coloured sidewalk chalk on the pavement outside Heritage River Retirement Residence on March 27.
It was a sign of friendship and community created by Stephanie Lines-Toohill, of Elora, and Aila Hennekens, of Fergus, who have friends living in the Heritage River Community.
As personal support workers, both women are well aware of the impact and sense of isolation COVID-19 is having on seniors, including those who live independently within a community like Heritage River.
“We came to spread joy for everyone here, but also for special people we know and care about,” Lines-Toohill said.
“We figured this is a way we could show the people inside that the community outside still loves them, even though we cannot go in to visit them. This is how we can show them we are in this together, even though we are apart.”
Using her mobile phone, Lines-Toohill called her friend Bonnie Smiley to come to the window of her third-floor room.
“Bonnie is one of the people I am here to surprise,” Lines-Toohill said.
“Bonnie told me this pandemic reminds her of wartime and how people need to pull together, so that inspired me to find a way to show Bonnie and her neighbours that care about them by pulling together.”
The message was well received. Residents came out on their balconies to say a brief hello and some waved from their windows, while others used their mobile phones to videotape the scene outside.
For Smiley, it was a heartwarming gesture.
“I miss Stephanie so much. She took me shopping and we enjoyed many visits together and then it all collapsed and she couldn’t come visit anymore, and I really miss her presence,” Smiley said.
“It’s so typical of Stephanie. She is such a dear, loving person and it was such a surprise. Bless her heart. She’s so full of love.”
During the Second World War, Smiley was a WRN, the name given to members of the women’s branch of the Royal Navy. She worked as a code breaker at Bletchley Park, England, the headquarters of Allied code-breaking.
Smiley says the COVID-19 quarantine has given her much time to reflect on the similarities of present day and that time in history.
“I was remembering that before D-Day we had a travel a ban for the WRNS. For three months, we weren’t allowed to go on the trains at all because of the troop movements, so we had to go home.
“We used to hitch hike with the lorry drivers to get home. Those men were so good to us, they never bothered us at all.”
She admits that sounds absurd to people nowadays, for young women to rely on the kindness of strangers, but she recalls the sense of community and how respectful people were to support each other in the midst of war.
“People took care of each other,” she said.
Lines-Toohill and Hennekens plan to keep showing their care for Smiley and her neighbours. They are planning future visits to Heritage River.
“We are going to come at least once a week and maybe have flowers, or do a little dance and think of new and creative things to do,” said Lines-Toohill.
Sandy Nikolasevic, life enrichment coordinator at Heritage River, says the gestures make a positive difference in the morale of residents.
“Anything that helps lift their spirits is great,” Nikolasevic said. “They love it and it’s really nice for everybody, including the staff.”
She said she has seen family members stand outside and communicate with their loved ones using mobile phones, like Stephanie and Bonnie.
Others have dropped off items at the front reception area, because the community is closed to visitors. All items brought in are sanitized.
“Twice we’ve had neighbourhood children anonymously drop off handmade cards, for St. Patrick’s Day. They left about 30 or 40 cards at the front door. That was a nice surprise,” Nikolasevic said.
A few days later, about 20 more cards arrived with nice messages to be shared.
“We don’t know who these young people are, but anything like that is good and positive for the residents; it’s wonderful and appreciated,” Nikolasevic said.
For Smiley, who has lived through dark times, she offers simple advice to get everyone through this pandemic.
“My saving grace is I go out every day, whatever the weather, and I walk. I look at nature,” she said.
“There were blooms out today, the first little tiny blue flowers, and I sat out there and sang The Flowers That Bloom in the Spring, Tra La, from Gilbert and Sullivan. It helps. It makes us feel so much better to see the new life, and the trees are starting to get green.
“We need to take pleasure in very small things.”