Virtual Community Connections During COVID-19: A Shifting Perspective

Stroke support groups in the southeast provide a variety of supportive services to stroke survivors and caregivers.  For members of these groups, meetings are an opportunity to share experiences, learn about stroke and caregiving, get connected to resources and reduce social isolation.   While at this writing, limited in-person stroke support meetings have resumed, the COVID trajectory remains uncertain making virtual care an important component in a multi-faceted care approach.  It may well become a preferred intervention in other situations (e.g., geographical isolation, seasonal weather impacts). 

The Stroke Support Group Facilitators across the southeast recognized the risks inherent in the social isolation that was precipitated by COVID.  For stroke survivors who are a high risk population and their caregivers, both of whom may already have had limited opportunities for social interaction, the imposition of additional limitations were challenging.  In response to this, the Facilitator explored innovative approaches to continuing to engage with and provide support to this population.  The initial step was to reconnect by phone with each support group participant to ascertain their wellbeing and need for additional supports.  These ‘check-in’ calls have continued with both stroke survivors and caregivers and have been adjusted to meet the needs and preferences of each individual. As it became clear that COVID would be a long-standing situation, other virtual supports were put into place. Video meetings via Zoom were introduced in Kingston and meetings targeted at adults with aphasia were initiated in both Kingston and Belleville. 

“Zoom has been a lifesaver for [adult with aphasia] during this pandemic.  She suffers with difficulty speaking, reading and writing which makes having a conversation on the phone nearly impossible.  Staying in contact with her stroke and aphasia group friends during this pandemic would be impossible if not for the video chats that [the Stroke Support Group Facilitator] schedules on Zoom.  These groups are her lifeline, contribute to her health and well being, and help her from being isolated and depressed.” ~ Caregiver 

This process was a mutual learning opportunity for both the Facilitator and the clients.  Video links were not a preferred communication approach for all clients and an option for teleconferencing bingo games was put forward in the Belleville area and has been an ongoing success.  Recently, a virtual group for caregivers of adults with aphasia has begun in Kingston at the request of the caregivers.  Peer support phone check-in calls have also been offered for all new stroke survivors and those existing survivors in Kingston who would like some extra support during COVID-19. As the social isolation requirements related to COVID continue to persist, additional innovations emerge with the most recent being collaborative Zoom meetings between in-hospital stroke survivors at PCH and QHC and the respective Support Group Facilitator.  The Kingston initiative also includes community-based stroke survivors in these cross-continuum meetings.  While support group participants continue to express a preference for in-person meetings, using virtual technology as a stop gap measure has been successful to the extent that some components may be adopted in a future COVID-free context. 

“As a proud two- time stroke survivor, if it was not for the Stroke Survivor Group I would be a lost, depressed soul.  Having found the group 8 years ago it has made me a better person,  it has given me confidence in allowing  me to speak up for me and of course all the other survivors in our group . I think us being able to see and meet on Zoom is great especially for those who live in the country; we can see them and vice versa. It lets them know we are here and have their backs.” ~ Stroke Survivor

For additional information on the Kingston & area programs, please contact Lynda Lennox, VON-Kingston Stroke Support Coordinator at 613-634-0130 x 3469 or by email at lynda.lennox@von.ca.   For information on Belleville & area programs, please contact Lorraine Pyle, Community Care for South Hastings Stroke Services Coordinator at 613-969-0130 x 5207 or by email at lorrainep@ccsh.ca.  For information on services in Brockville and Perth/Smiths Falls, , please contact Wendy Clark, Senior Support Services, Community & Primary Health Care, Community Health Promoter at 613.342.3693 X 2161 or by email at wclark@cphcare.ca   You can also visit our website under Community Supports.  
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