Young At Heart gives North Dumfries seniors a reason to smile

Reposted from the Waterloo Region Community Foundation - Special thanks to Rochelle Benoit for taking the time to highlight our work in North Dumfries!

Young At Heart gives North Dumfries seniors a reason to smile

Connection and community are what's behind the Porchlight Counselling & Addiction Services Young at Heart Lunch and Learn for Seniors program.

The outreach program has been running since the late 1990s, operating each Friday out of Knox United Church in Ayr. Seniors gather for a bite to eat and some fellowship to help tackle isolation, foster social participation, and support overall well-being.

That togetherness came to an immediate standstill with the arrival of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Group gatherings were, at least temporarily, no longer permitted.

The word 'pivot' has been popular throughout the pandemic, but it's apt in describing Community Program Coordinator, Brenda Clements' approach at the onset. Recognizing full gatherings were no longer possible, but understanding the need for interaction hadn't gone away, Clements would regularly do individual wellness check-ins for those isolated seniors whose already limited social outlets had suddenly vanished overnight.

Coordinating so many visits was admittedly "pretty tricky" during those early-pandemic months, but eventually, a new, more enjoyable, and sustainable approach was mapped out.

For Young At Heart, the next best thing to meeting in person for lunch was a takeout-meal concept designed similar to what many restaurants were already beginning to offer at the time.

"We were limited to the number of people we were allowed to have inside. So, I worked with two volunteers to personally prepare takeout meals every Friday. They pulled up, didn't even get out of their cars, and it was like a drive-thru," Clements said.

"They were just so happy to get out and pick up that meal and get to see familiar faces again. It was pretty exciting. I still have goosebumps thinking about how excited everyone was," she added.

While the drive-thru effort served to bridge the gap and was a considerable hit, restrictions have since been lifted and the Young at Heart crowd is happy to be back inside Knox United Church. Since April they've once again been congregating on a drop-in basis.

A typical Young at Heart Friday includes a hot lunch for all, and usually some form of activity or entertainment. Guest speakers, chair yoga, special music, and bingo are regular happenings.

"To help prevent a lot of isolation that very easily can happen with seniors. Just getting out and socializing," Clements said of some of the purposes of the program she has been involved in for 17 years. "It's a safe space."

While there are no age restrictions (grandchildren and relatives often join the party), participants typically range in age from 60 years old and up. The average age of attendees is between 85-90.

Despite the many pandemic-related challenges of the past few years, programming appears once again to be booming for Young at Heart.

"We have a lot of new faces and we're already back up to 47 seniors," Clements said. "I thought it would be tricky getting them out again, but they are showing up, so that's great."

A group of seniors sitting around tables to share a meal together

A big part of what makes this grassroots non-profit program a success is the many established partnerships -- financial or otherwise -- between various levels of government as well as foundations and the generosity of the Cambridge Food Bank.

The program in 2022 was a funding recipient through Waterloo Region Community Foundation's Community Fund, receiving $6,025. The money has been used for operational needs such as purchasing food and paying for staff and entertainment.

"We need the funding. Especially with that many people and to provide that many meals and space," Clements said. "Above all, just to keep it going we need the funding."

As for what's next for Young at Heart, an informal evaluation was planned as a way to measure the effectiveness of the program. A community needs assessment and an external evaluation have also been proposed.

Clements has a few boxes she'd like to see ticked. She said transportation has always been a challenge given how rural the area is. Finding some volunteer drivers would be a start, while getting a dedicated bus route in Ayr would be a dream fulfilled for Clements. Additionally, the program coordinator said a day trip by bus was a highlight for the seniors each summer before the pandemic, and she'd love to see that trip happen again with help from an outside funder. And volunteers willing to help set up and take down tables and chairs or help prepare meals are always needed.

For now, everyone involved in Young at Heart is content to be interacting face-to-face again following pandemic restrictions.

"We've become a huge family," Clements said. "I'm just excited every time I see them come through the door. Just their smiley faces and their thank-yous every week. They're so appreciative."

For more information on Porchlight Counselling & Addiction Services, visit

Link to the original story on the Waterloo Region Community Foundation website. We are thankful for the support we receive through through the Waterloo Region Community Foundation, who currently fund our work in North Dumfries and our Taming the Dragon program in WRDSB classrooms.