A smile a day keeps the virus blues away

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a damper on everyone’s life, but the employees at a Witless Bay seniors centre remain vigilant in lifting their residents’ spirits during these uncertain times.

Marykate O’Neill

A group of seniors from Alderwood Retirement Centre in Witless Bay pose for a photograph outside Broderick’s Pub in downtown St. John’s. Alderwood cleared out the pub for a spirit-boosting field trip during the pandemic.  Photo submitted by Renee Houlihan.

The recreational director with a retirement home in Witless Bay has made waves on Facebook after sharing videos of some uplifting activities she organized for the centre’s residents.

From homemade comedy skits to a virtual haunted house, Renee Houlihan has been striving to ensure the residents at Alderwood Retirement Centre are making the best out of an unpredictable situation – the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Alderwood residents received local celebrity status after Houlihan decided she would take their daily activities to Facebook.

In the midst of tight COVID-19 regulations, Houlihan knew she had to do something to boost spirits of both the residents and their loved ones.

“When COVID happened, we had to kick it up a gear,” Houlihan said. “And for me, as recreational director, I really focused on giving them a sense of purpose.”

Houlihan knows COVID-19 is a huge risk to seniors, but the virus wasn’t her biggest worry.

“The real enemy of old age is loneliness. Lack of purpose and lack of meaning in their lives.”

While Newfoundland and Labrador has fared relatively well during the pandemic, the consistently terrible news from other provinces had the potential to demoralize the seniors.

“Everything was so dark and dismal and we were watching on the mainland as they were saying senior homes were pits of death,” Houlihan said. “So, for us we were like, OK, let’s really focus on enlightening everyone’s mood because life goes on.”

Houlihan decided to make the best out of a bad situation.

Beacon of hope

“One way we found that we could give back and also have a sense of purpose was doing these skits and songs and releasing them to our Facebook page,” she said. “That gave us a purpose, and purpose equals meaning, and that is the reason people get up in the morning.”

The impact of the video project went beyond the seniors themselves. The videos they made were seen all over Canada, delighting their thousands of followers.

“I think we became a beacon of hope across the country,” Houlihan said. “People were laughing at our videos and telling us the joy our videos were bringing them during such a difficult time.”

This beacon of hope brought light to the families of the residents as well.

Annabelle Browne says Alderwood saved not only her mom but also her family.

“Having Mom at Alderwood has relieved me and my siblings a great deal,” Browne said. “She was doing very well and very active until my brother Leo died almost two years ago.”

Browne said that her mom went into a downward spiral after the loss.

“In the end, she couldn’t live alone anymore and ended up in Alderwood, not by plan but by chance.

“We haven’t seen mom smile and laugh so much in many years,” Browne said. “I wish my brother could see her face coming up on the TV in their skits and social outings.”

A new life

Madonna Martin’s mother-in-law is a resident of Alderwood, and the centre has been a source of comfort for the family.

“There were no worries,” said Martin. “We knew in our hearts that everything was going to be OK.”

Martin said Houlihan made a good impression on her family from the moment they met her. Since then, their gut feeling has been confirmed in the impact they’ve seen Houlihan have upon the residents.

“Even before the lockdown, we could sense something special about Renee,” Martin said. “Renee is the wind beneath their wings.”

Ann Coady, a resident at Alderwood, says that Houlihan keeps her and the other residents hopping.

“During COVID, we didn’t even mind the time,” Coady said. “We had so much fun making videos and doing different skits and singing. We had a ball.”

Coady said she remained positive during lockdown.

“Everything was fine, and we had a lot of fun,” Coady recalled. “We entertained Canada. We just kept moving and moving. We never stopped.”

Coady explained that Alderwood saved her from a darkness she couldn’t see.

“I was in my rocking chair for seven years before I came here,” Coady said. “And now, I haven’t stopped since I got here.”

“I didn’t realize I was lonely before I got here,” Coady said. “But when I came here, I realized that I can live again.”

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