For The Morning Star
Jo de Vries is on a mission to make sure seniors’ voices are heard. And thanks to funding from New Horizons for Seniors, she is doing just that.
The founder and CEO of Fresh Outlook Foundation (FOF) received the funding to expand her organization’s HEADS UP! Community Mental Health educational programming with a new storytelling project, For Seniors by Seniors.
“People seem to view seniors as this grey demographic with all seniors being the same, having the same challenges and limitations,” said de Vries, who has hired veteran local journalists to help seniors share their stories. “Our stories are about seniors with mental health challenges who are healing in ways that make their lives more meaningful, purposeful and productive. We believe this will bring hope to others.”
With 30 years’ experience as a public outreach and engagement specialist to local government, de Vries brings a wealth of knowledge that set the stage for the FOF, which she founded in 2007.
FOF envisions a future where people of all ages and from all sectors collaborate to make our communities healthier, happier and more prosperous. Research shows this is possible only when people talk with one another about important community issues, challenges and opportunities, and then work together to find and implement innovative and practical solutions. To that end, the foundation’s passion is “inspiring community conversation for sustainable change.”
For the first dozen or so years, the foundation was focused on community sustainability events that informed, inspired and mobilized people around topics of social, cultural, environmental and economic sustainability.
FOF created opportunities for those conversations to unfold at events such as Building SustainABLE Communities conferences, CommUnity Innovation Lab, REEL CHANGE SustainAbility Film Fests, ECO-BLAST Kids’ Camps, Breakfasts of Champions, Women 4 SustainAbility and Talking DIRTy x 10,000!
“But about five years ago, I decided that I wanted to focus on mental health because first and foremost mental health impacts every area of community sustainability,” said de Vries. “Secondly, mental health challenges were things I’d experienced personally. Third was the devastating story about my friend whose grandson, by 11 years old, had attempted suicide numerous times. I realized that if I didn’t know anything about this and other serious mental health issues, then most other people wouldn’t either.
“There have been so many changes in the way we view mental health over the decades. My grandmother died by suicide when my mom was eight years old. Appallingly, she was told never to talk about it with anyone. That breaks my heart, thinking of the tragic secret she carried until much later in her life.”
Her experiences and interests in mental health led de Vries to organize the HEADS UP! Community Mental Health Virtual Summit in 2020. Then she and her husband began producing the HEADS UP podcast as well as e-zine articles for the FOF web site, both of which include information about seniors’ mental health. She also hopes to host an in-person Okanagan Seniors’ Summit this fall.
“For the podcasts on seniors’ mental health, we brought in three guests: a geriatric psychiatrist; an educator, advocate and entrepreneur who helps people adapt to transitions throughout their senior years; and another advocate who is a caregiver to her mother who has dementia.”
With the New Horizons funding, de Vries began the first phase of the seniors’ project, which included qualitative research through various focus groups to determine seniors’ mental health and well-being strategies; mental health issues and challenges; types of information they want and need to inform and inspire better mental health; and existing and preferred methods for receiving information.
Information was gathered during five focus groups of both senior men and women in a variety of settings, including the Schubert Centre, Coldstream Meadows, Abbeyfield Residence and senior women community leaders living in their own homes.
“To me, there were three major outcomes of that research: first is that seniors want to talk about this. While they do use online and printed resources, they prefer to talk in ways that stimulate social and emotional connection. They also want to hear stories that are supported by science and professional opinion. These findings are driving HEADS UP! seniors’ programming.
Focus groups were organized and facilitated by de Vries, 67, with help from local senior Phyllis Dyck. Five Grade 11 students from Students Without Borders Academy in Vernon documented focus group discussions.
“These young women interacted meaningfully and productively with the seniors by asking questions, sharing stories of relationships with their grandparents and pointing out how seniors could better connect with younger demographics,” said de Vries.
“Students and seniors both loved the experience, which supports the argument for enhanced intergenerational communication and connection to support seniors’ mental health.”
Focus group participants agreed that storytelling is the best way to inform, inspire and mobilize seniors’ mental health and well-being. They also agreed that stories combined with facts, statistics and input from medical professionals would be the most compelling and transformative materials if they are clear, concise and available in user-friendly platforms.
“They also supported the approach of educational materials being created for seniors by seniors, which would ensure more compelling and inspiring materials that would resonate more deeply with this demographic.”
Hence, de Vries is collaborating with local retired journalists to produce the stories, with topics ranging from depression and disordered eating, to ageism and the mental health benefits of aging in place, to the impacts on seniors of physical, psychological, sexual and financial abuse.
“To make these e-zine articles most engaging, we are adding book club-style questions at the end of each one to encourage discussion,” said de Vries. “We found that people have unique needs for information: men and women, different age groups within the senior demographic, and people with varying mental health challenges. The questions are designed to get everyone sharing stories, insights, ideas and passions for collaborative change.”
For more information, see www.freshoutlookfoundation.org or if you are a senior who would like to share your story on any topic and its impact on mental health (to protect their privacy, subjects do not have to use their real names), please email de Vries at email@example.com.