Sheila Reiger is a long-time resident of Vancouver’s West End. In her free time she enjoys listening to radios and audio books, going out for walks with friends, and “eating other people’s food”. With a gleeful smile and infectious chuckle, Sheila is warm, pleasant, and a joy to be around. That’s probably why she’s so popular around here. Like many seniors, Sheila is an avid volunteer and has recently joined the WESN Better at Home Advisory Committee as a committee member. Other past volunteer experiences include peer counselling, public speaking, sitting on and chairing various boards of directors, including on the Board of Directors for HandyDart.
Sheila is also completely blind, and a user of WESN Better at Home’s transportation program, where volunteer drivers take seniors to their medical appointments.
“The program has made an enormous difference for me,” she told us. “For a blind person, using HandyDart and taxis have their challenges. After they drop you off in front of the door, you will have to find the elevator or stairs, find the correct floor number to press on the elevator, get off at the right floor, and then find the correct room number to get to your appointment.”
Aside from being an affordable alternative to taking the taxi (the most a senior can pay for a return trip to the doctor’s is $10), WESN Better at Home volunteer drivers are also trained to escort seniors with visual impairments and/or using mobility aids to the place of the appointment. Often they will even wait with them until the appointment is over and drive them home.
“Having an escort to go along with me is a godsend,” Sheila remarked. “Although with practice you can learn a great deal, you have to relearn everything once something changes. You think you know how to get to a place, and something changes and you have to learn all over. And you can’t always expect your friends to take time off to go to appointments with you.”
Many seniors with mobility challenges or visual impairments become homebound and isolated when going out without assistance becomes difficult and dangerous, and they do not wish to be a burden on their friends and family. Accessibility is a vital issue when trying to keep seniors active and connected in the community.
“When people discuss accessibility, they immediately think about wheelchairs. People often don’t think about how to make places accessible to a person who is blind.”
Having benefited from the Better at Home program, Sheila has also found direct ways to give back. In the summer, she facilitated a training session with our volunteer drivers, talked about the realities and challenges of living with visual impairments, and taught our drivers how to walk with and assist someone who is blind. Such training proved invaluable to the volunteers assisting the many other seniors on the Better at Home program who are blind.
Charming, humorous, and an engaging public speaker, Sheila immediately won the hearts and respect of the volunteers, many of whom were astonished to hear that in her everyday life, Sheila is often treated as though she lacks intelligence because of her blindness. Yet invisibility and lack of respect are prevalent challenges that seniors face every day. We often hear about seniors as a “burden to the healthcare system” and so on, without realizing the contributions that seniors have made in their working days and continue to make as caregivers and volunteers after retirement.
Sheila is just one example of how much seniors in our community have to offer. It’s just that like the rest of us, sometimes they just need that little bit of help.
Author: Dora Ng
A contribution from Vancouver’s West End (WESN) Better at Home’s program coordinator