Online Acquaintances Become Real-Life Friends Over Coffee, Crafts, and Cooking

A popular online seniors’ program has become a platform for Salmo retirees to bond over projects, discuss the issues of the day, and find new friends in the community.

The weekly program is run by Salmo Community Response Network (CRN) Coordinator Helen Oldershaw, who transformed the former in-person coffee social program into a vibrant online space for seniors to gather. Thanks to the financial and in-kind support of the Government of Canada’s New Horizons for Seniors Program, the Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy (CBAL), the BC CRN, the Salmo Food Bank, and the Salmo Valley Fund, Helen now conducts online instructional craft and cooking classes for seniors as part of the program.

The success of the program was not done overnight, in fact, Helen needed two years to effectively make the shift, learn what was possible in pandemic times, understand where her community’s seniors were at with their technology literacy, and find partners that were willing to travel this journey with her.

Teaching Seniors How to Use Zoom Was a Key First Step

Like with most organizations at the start of the pandemic, in-person meetings and events were canceled and the push to make programs Zoom-capable became commonplace. Today, virtual events and webinars are now normal practice.

For Salmo seniors, and many seniors across the province, the learning curve for Zoom and technology in general was a steep one.

“The seniors who participate in our programs range in age from 55 to 85 and they come from all socio-economical (sic) backgrounds,” says Helen. “The Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy really stepped up, which allowed us to get Zoom set up and running and to teach our seniors how to use it well.”

It took a full year for Helen to establish Zoom and to market the new online coffee socials to the community. “It took some time to get people interested,” she says. “We started a ‘friendly-caller program’, where volunteers cold-called seniors to gauge their interest in learning how to use Zoom to connect with family and friends.”

The first iteration of the online coffee group invited seniors to gather weekly. Helen assembled small packages containing tea, instant coffee, and a treat, and then personally delivered them to the seniors who signed up.

The outreach and marketing paid off: the new online coffee group attracted an average of between 10 to 14 people every week out of the 24 who have registered. “I call the group my ‘Zoomers’,” says Helen.

Following the Path of the Conversation

Sometimes, the conversation is the path to new ideas, growth, and new friends.

“The participants themselves decide on something to work on together,” Helen explains. “I just take the idea and make it happen within our budget.”

Together, and from the safety of their respective homes, the group has built birdhouses, made shower gels and bubble bath soaps, and started gardens. The most popular activity: cooking.

“We keep the recipes simple, focusing on nutritious vegetarian dishes keeps costs low for everyone,” she says. “Vegetarian ingredients also help with more easily keeping the cooking environment food safe.”

In collaboration with the Salmo Food Bank, Helen bulk purchases the ingredients for the week’s ‘cooking lesson’, portions them out, and then delivers the packages to the group a few days in advance. “I still include a treat and a packet of tea or instant coffee so they can make something nice to drink. There is no pressure on anyone to do anything they don’t want to do in the hour we are together”

Helen also ensures special considerations are accommodated. “One of our ladies had a stroke, so I pre-cut onions and peel garlic, for example, so she can focus on cooking,” explains Helen. “Little things like this make a difference, but only if the person is open to it. If not, don’t push it: we want to respect the person’s wishes and preferences. It’s not about us.”

The Zoomers have learned to cook everything from dumplings, samosas, spanakopita, curries, and phyllo pastry apple tarts. The week of our interview, Ukrainian potato pancakes were on the menu. “Last week, we were talking about the war in Ukraine, sharing what each person observed, and how they felt,” she says. “The conversation led to the idea of making something from that culture.”

The dialogue that takes place in the group also happens organically. “I share ideas for informal conversations while we cook together,” she states. “We’ve talked about everything: current events, adult abuse, and neglect, inflation, Medically Assistance In Dying (MAID), power of attorney, fraud. Again, it’s completely up to the Zoomers if they want to talk about a topic or not. I’m there to hold space for people to reflect and share, and to allow the conversation to go where it wants to go.”

The Surprising Impacts of the Program

Anecdotal feedback and the results of a recent electronic survey tell a story of the profound and surprising impact of the program on the participants and the community.

Technology is no longer a barrier for the seniors who regularly participate in the program.

Complete strangers are now good friends, meeting one another socially outside of the Zoom Coffee Group now that pandemic health orders have relaxed.

“I was on vacation for a week and the group met online on their own. They went ahead and organized the gathering without me!” she laughs. “It’s great to see: it means they are connecting with people on their own.”

Nearly all the foods the group learned to prepare together have also been incorporated into their regular diet. “There is a lot of talk about creating a cookbook,” Helen says. “Word of the program has made its way into the community and now everyone wants recipes!”

Individuals who were once hesitant to ask for help, are now actively reaching out to family and friends. “The Zoomers are feeling empowered as a result of their online interactions with each other,” she shares. “There is a lot of trust and support in this new circle of friends, pandemic or not.”

Some of the projects and dishes created through the online seniors’ coffee social program. Click on a picture to view a larger version. (Photos: H. Oldershaw)

For more information about the Salmo CRN’s “cooking show” or to get involved in assisting with the program, please contact Helen at

Written by: Debbie Chow, Links Communication Solutions. Follow Debbie on LinkedIn @debbiechowabc.

(Header Photo: H. Oldershaw)

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