Community network shines in crisis bringing help and hope to isolated Elders

By University Advancement and Communications Posted: June 5, 2020 10:00 a.m.

Kokum Brenda Dubois volunteers to deliver special Mother's Day packages.
Kokum Brenda Dubois volunteers to deliver special Mother's Day packages. Photo: JoLee Sasakamoose

Strength, resilience, adaptability, and compassion - these are the building blocks of the Regina COVID-19 Volunteer Community Response Team, a community support network initiated by Dr. JoLee Sasakamoose, Associate Professor in Educational Psychology and Counselling at the University of Regina.

Since a state of emergency was announced by the Government of Saskatchewan in March 2020, the Regina COVID Response team of five core members and numerous volunteers has been working day and night to support Elders and other vulnerable Indigenous people in Regina, who do not have a network of family or caregivers.

"Those of us who've been impacted by disaster before know how to handle disruption," said Sasakamoose. "Some people get paralyzed by it and can't function. For First Nations and Métis people, we don't panic, we go into survival mode."

Elders play a vital role in the cultural memory and practice of First Nations people and are pivotal to the survival of Indigenous ways of being and knowing.

"Elders are our knowledge base, our language keepers, our medicine keepers," explained Sasakamoose. "They are everything; that's why we're taking care of them."

Just days before cases of COVID-19 began appearing in Saskatchewan, Sasakamoose was becoming alarmed about the welfare of those Elders who had pre-existing health problems and no safety net of support.

"One of our kokums (grandmothers) had just gotten out of the hospital," explained Sasakamoose. "I started asking our women on the ground, 'what is going to happen to our kokums when COVID-19 hits?' They have to come out and shop and do those basic things. I think we should keep a list and start watching them."

The list quickly grew from two to ten, and finally up to 63 Elders and other Indigenous people in Regina who are more vulnerable to the effects of the coronavirus because of their existing medical conditions, such as diabetes and kidney disease. For these people, staying at home, or isolating themselves in their hotel rooms while they wait for surgery, is crucial to avoiding the virus and its potentially life-threatening complications. 

"There is a core group of people who aren't cared for by others. We know who they are so we can identify a gap and fill the need," said Sasakamoose. "We're very focused on what we can and can't do - we only help Elders and vulnerable people in the Regina area who are not already being helped by their bands."

After speaking with First Nations Chiefs in the area, Sasakamoose and her team were able to identify vulnerable people who needed support, often partnering with other organizations, such as Treaty 4 Mutual Aid, to deliver assistance.

Isolation and loneliness are the biggest challenges for isolated Elders during the pandemic. That's why in addition to providing two hot meals a week, cleaning materials, and gardening supplies and plants, the team members make calls every Monday to check on Elders and their other clients to assess how they're doing.

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Sasakamoose and her team prepare and deliver two hot meals a week
to isolated Elders during the pandemic. Photo: JoLee Sasakamoose

"Sometimes when we call them, we hear depression, we hear mental health issues, we hear about them losing family members," said Sasakamoose. "It's a lot for them. They don't have the technologies to easily communicate and some live alone."

For these Elders, Sasakamoose and her team may be the only gateway of communication. As a result, they get to know the people they are caring for intimately and provide emotional support, such as dropping off unexpected gifts and including special messages along with the food deliveries. Special events such as 'drive-by Mondays' when volunteers will pass by a client's home, honking their horns to express support, go a long way to raise spirits.


JoLee and Hunter Sasakamoose
delivering food to Elders.
Photo: JoLee Sasakamoose

Whether she's making spaghetti for 50 people or growing hydroponic gardens for Elders in her home, Sasakamoose is developing new ways to keep traditional practices going. As a result of the pandemic, Elders and others have not been able to gather medicines that are needed in ceremony or for healing. With the permission of Elders, Sasakamoose is now growing traditional medicines in her home, which she gives to the Elders to make medicinal teas.

"Elders have given us permission to explore how to move forward," explained Sasakamoose. "There's more openness to technologies for webinars about traditional medicines. Pre-COVID-19 we wouldn't have seen that."

Gardening has now taken over Sasakamoose's furnace room, living room, and backyard where she keeps her hydroponic tower, grow-bags of potatoes, and seedlings.

"We're learning vermiculture and permaculture. We're piloting hydroponics and square-foot gardening, and I'm using all this to homeschool my son," said Sasakamoose. "It's organically taking over my life."

Sasakamoose plans for the team to gather and preserve their garden harvest, and has recently partnered with the Western Region III, Métis Nation-Saskatchewan. She has ordered canning equipment and the teams will preserve the harvest and distribute it to Elders to help them out in the Winter.

"We want to keep the support for Elders going past the pandemic," stressed Sasakamoose. "We'll slow down to one hot meal a week supplemented by frozen meals during the Summer, and in the Fall, we'll restart depending on what happens. All of us are caregivers, and we feel good when we know that our Elders are happy and feeling cared for and well."

Check out #UofReginaCares for more stories about U of R students, alumni, faculty, and staff who are using their ingenuity, resolve, and hearts to care for our community during these challenging times.