Senior Toronto blog

December 29, 2021

Little things

My world is getting smaller, and it’s not just because of Covid. I don’t have the agility and stamina anymore for hiking and exploring, and I don’t have the energy and patience for a lot of socializing. I guess it’s just part of aging. So I spend most of my time doing things at home. But I’m not bored, because aging is constantly inserting new challenges into my daily life.

Dropping something on the floor becomes a big issue if I’m having a bad spinal stenosis day; I can’t bend over to pick it up. My arthritic hands can’t open jars. When a light bulb burns out on a ceiling fixture, or a smoke alarm battery dies, I can no longer perch on the stepladder and reach up to the ceiling to unscrew the fixture or drill holes for the new alarm; I don’t have the balance. Whenever these things happen and panic starts to set in, I try to figure out some new way of doing them. If I can’t think of anything, I consult with Professor Google. Now I own a reacher so I can pick things off the floor without bending over. I use rubber dishwashing gloves to open jars. I put up my smoke alarm with heavy-duty Velcro, so I don’t have to drill holes in the ceiling. And I’m looking around for a new, senior-friendly stepladder.

I feel ridiculously pleased when I manage to come up with workarounds for these little things. Look Maw, I can do it myself! But mostly what I feel is relief. I’ve overcome the obstacle, jumped through the hoop. I can put that problem behind me and move on. I’m still in charge of my life – for now.

November 30, 2021

Talking to bots

Everyone has a story like mine. I ordered a package on Amazon and received it in the promised time frame. But nobody told Amazon. They kept extending the delivery date, then told me it might be lost; did I want to process a refund? At first I ignored the messages, because after all I didn’t have a problem; I got my package. But finally I got tired of all the messages. I figured the problem would be easy to fix. So I clicked on Problem with order and started interacting with the chatbot. They offered me a textbox so I could send a message to the seller. Here’s what I typed in: “Package received October 15, 2021. Please update the Amazon record”. That was too complicated for the bot. The reply was, “There was a problem with delivery”. And that was the end of the road.

I guess they’re using the kind of bot that just has a fixed number of FAQs programmed in, with some fixed language variations. Not all bots are that dumb. Some now use artificial intelligence, so they learn from customer interactions and gradually can respond to more complex requests. But of course customer service bots are all about saving money, and those simpler ones are pretty cheap. Some are even free. From the company’s perspective, all that matters is that they can say they are maintaining a customer service function. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work.

Not that live customer service is any better. It’s just a different kind of hell, where you’re left on hold listening to ads or Muzak or “Your call is important to us” messages, sometimes for hours. Or you’re connected to a call centre in another country, where people with impenetrable accents enter into a tug of war with you, with neither person able to understand what the other person is saying.

How did it come to this? Isn’t the customer always right? We seniors grew up believing that, and I think that it’s still true, only the customer isn’t the shopper any more. Now the customer is the shareholder; that’s the person the company has to keep happy. And the shareholder isn’t easy to please. He wants to see his portfolio values keep on rising every quarter. How can you do that, except by driving down wages, raising prices and cheapening the product or service? And if the shopper doesn’t like the shoddy product or indifferent service, where can he turn? Corporate concentration has narrowed so many markets that companies no longer have to worry about losing us to rivals. The few companies running a sector can operate in lockstep, offering the same poor quality products or services at the same high prices. This should be very familiar ground to anyone who has, for example, tried to buy a Canadian cellphone plan.

So we’re stuck with the bots. I looked hard for advice on how best to communicate with the beasts, but all I could scrape up were these few tidbits:

  • Keep your language simple. Talk to the bot as if it were a child.
  • Just make one request per message, in a single sentence.
  • Use bots only on trusted sites.
  • Don’t give bots any sensitive financial or medical information.
  • If you’re not getting anywhere, tell the bot you want to talk to a person or a human. Sometimes you’ll get one.

October 29, 2021

Health card renewals

Did your health card and driver’s licence expire during the pandemic? Mine too. As you know, for a while the Ontario government let us use expired cards; they didn’t want us to risk catching Covid in those crowded Service Ontario offices. All well and good. But then in September, Service Ontario announced that the grace period for using expired cards was ending on February 28, 2022, so we all have to renew our expired cards. The pandemic is still on. What are our renewal options? That’s where things get squirrelly.

According to the Service Ontario website, everyone aged 15 ½ and over must go to a Service Ontario office and renew in person. Everyone? Well, not exactly. If you just want to renew your driver’s licence, for now you can do that online. If you just want to renew your health card, you have to renew in person. If you want to renew both your health card and your driver’s licence, you can do that online. Everyone? Well, not exactly. Everyone in Ontario can renew their health card and driver’s licence together online, except for one group: people aged 75 to 80.

Yup, Service Ontario is forcing a whole cohort of vulnerable seniors to go into a busy, crowded indoor space and take our masks off for the photo. That’s contrary to Public Health Ontario’s rules, which require us to wear masks in indoor public spaces. So what extra measures is Service Ontario applying to protect us? Well, none at all. You don’t need to show proof of vaccination to go there. They just ask you to fill out a Covid questionnaire at home and bring it along. Your name’s not even on it. When I went in a few weeks ago, nobody bothered to ask me for it.

Why are they singling out seniors aged 75 to 80? Service Ontario doesn’t say. Once you turn 80 you can renew your health card by mail, so maybe they figured this was their last chance to get our pictures. In that case, they are endangering our health for bureaucratic convenience. Or maybe they’re thinking that if we catch Covid, we will save them the trouble of finding long term care beds for us down the road. A handy little boomer remover, courtesy of the Government of Ontario.

September 30, 2021

Fall programs

The pandemic is still with us, but we’re learning to live with it. Thanks to vaccines, masks, social distancing and Zoom, there are lots of fitness, recreation and social programs available for seniors this fall. Bear in mind that if you want to attend an in-person program at a community centre, you will have to produce proof of full vaccination, fill out a Covid screening questionnaire and wear a mask inside the building.

Toronto Parks Forestry and Recreation released their fall 2021 program on September 22. There’s no Fun Guide, so you’ll have a bit more work finding programs. You can search by facility name or drill down through their category list. You can also search the Senior Toronto listings on this website to find out which centres are offering which programs. There are fewer options than there were pre-Covid, and almost all their programs are in-person. You’ll find lots of variety, everything from fitness to crafts, sports and games. If you want to attend a drop-in program, you’ll have to reserve a spot online each time you go; this enables the administrators to control the numbers and maintain social distancing.

It’s a bit surprising that Parks Forestry and Recreation are not offering any virtual programs for seniors, considering that many seniors do not feel safe going to in-person programs. But luckily, we have other options. Senior centres, neighbourhood centres, non-Parks Forestry and Recreation community centres and community health centres also provide programming for seniors. This year, most of them are offering a mix of in-person and virtual programs. There are plenty of virtual fitness, recreation and social programs to choose from, and a lot of them are free. They are all listed here on the Senior Toronto website; just search on the term you are interested in, like “yoga”, and they will all come up. As for those organizations which also provide health and social services for seniors, they are maintaining key services like health care, food access and assisted transportation. Health care and social support programs are virtual where possible; otherwise, in-person appointments are available on an urgent basis only.

Should seniors go to in-person programs? There’s a lot to consider. Many seniors have impaired immune systems, so even if you are vaccinated, you may not have good immunity. To find out, you have to ask your doctor for a requisition to get a Covid antibody blood test, which you have to pay for. Even if you have good immunity, you can still get Covid and pass it on to others. Now that we know that Covid is transmitted through tiny droplets in the air, think about the air quality in community centres. I haven’t seen any announcements of grants to community centres for the expensive Hepa filters needed to clear the air. Those centres are full of unvaccinated kids. People are mostly wearing poor-quality cloth masks which don’t fit properly and are next to useless at preventing transmission. We should be wearing N95 masks, but good luck finding any. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t go to in-person classes. Just do your research and decide what’s best for your situation.

August 29, 2021

Reverse ageism

We seniors know all about ageism: we live with it every day. But it turns out we’re not the only group being discriminated against because of age.

Increasingly, young people face discrimination too, particularly in the workplace. It’s not just that they are expected to stay humble as they learn the ropes from their more experienced colleagues. Today’s millennials and Gen Z workers also have to confront the perceptions that they are lazy, entitled, and disloyal – views that can hold them back in their careers.

Negative attitudes towards young people may extend beyond the workplace. Are we retired seniors guilty of reverse ageism? Have we ever doubted the competence of a young doctor or physiotherapist or counsellor, thereby creating barriers to treatment? Have we ever contemptuously dismissed the young because we think they lack the maturity and understanding that we feel can only come with experience?

Sometimes we seniors may disparage young people and dismiss their views, because we feel our life experience makes our own views more valid. In some respects, this may be true. Through a lifetime of experience, observation, building relationships and testing ourselves, many seniors have developed a deep understanding of human nature, what motivates people, what gives most satisfaction in life, how best to relate to our families, friends, colleagues, the broader community, power structures, what we feel we owe to others, and what others owe us. We can take a long historical view, and recognize what has been tried before, what has failed and what has succeeded. Many of us have learned patience and acceptance from the school of hard knocks. Most of these lessons come slowly, with time and reflection. We can mentor or support other people on this journey, but in the end we each have to learn these things for ourselves.

On the other hand, a lot of our life experience trained us to live in a very different world. Family structures, technology, the work environment, social values have all changed since we were young. We never had to deal with social media or the gig economy. Events of the last few years have opened our eyes to an awareness of unearned privilege many of us didn’t know we had, and forced us to consider the injustices and inequalities that our society has accepted, either unthinkingly or deliberately. As we build our lives, we often become more and more invested in the values on which they were based. We may feel we can’t afford to critique them and devalue our lives. So we may decide to forgo truth, and just listen to what we want to hear. Look how the world responds to Greta Thunberg and the other young climate activists. They don’t yet have a legacy to defend, so they can see the issues clearly. Their message is simple: listen to the science. But the media and politicians and the fossil fuel industry and other entrenched players will not look beyond their short-term interests, not even for the sake of their children, and so they lie and obfuscate and manipulate numbers and vilify the messengers.

You know what they say: there’s no fool like an old fool. Prove them wrong.

July 29, 2021

Quick stress busters

The lockdown’s easing, most of us have had our second shots, and we’re starting to feel hopeful about the future. But a lot of us are still carrying the burden of over a year of stress and isolation. We’re also feeling the added stress of insecurity. Because we are seniors we tend to have weakened immune systems, so what can we safely do?

If stress and anxiety are becoming a serious problem, of course you should talk to your doctor. But if you think the stress is manageable, here are some stress relievers. These are just quick fixes; they’re not therapy. I won’t mention deep breathing and meditation and exercise and yoga, because you already know about those.

  • Herbal tea, especially lemon balm, green, camomile or peppermint. I found camomile works best for me, but try them all out and see what works best for you.
  • Puzzles, any kind: crosswords, variety puzzles, Sudoku, jigsaws. They focus the mind in a restful but stimulating way. If you don’t have any puzzles lying around, you can find some online here.
  • Fix something: darn a sock, unclog the drain, pull some weeds. It makes you feel in charge again.
  • Read some good news stories. The Toronto Star has a series of them here.
  • Eat dark chocolate. Not too much, not too sweet, or you’ll give yourself new things to worry about.
  • Listen to old radio shows. Take a trip down memory lane, have a laugh. You’ll find some here.
  • Make chicken soup. It’s not hard and you’ll feel good all over. Chop an onion and a couple of stalks of celery and cook them in a bit of water or oil until softened. Add 6 cups of water, ½ cup white wine, 2 bone-in chicken thighs with skin removed, a bay leaf and some thyme. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 40 minutes. Remove chicken pieces, separate chicken from bone, cut into bite-size pieces and return chicken to saucepan. Discard bones. Add a chopped carrot or two and ½ cup of peas. Simmer for 20 more minutes. Discard bay leaf. Stir in parsley, salt and pepper to taste. If you like, add some noodles in the last 10 minutes.
  • Give yourself a massage. Even just massaging your hands can help. See instructions for different types of massages here.
  • Listen to bedtime stories for grown-ups (no, no, not that kind). You’ll see links to a few here.
  • Take a bath. You don’t need to put bubble bath or anything else in there. The hot water will do the job.