Amie Peacock, centre, founder of the volunteer group Beyond the Conversation, speaks with a senior citizen during a weekly group meeting to help people practice their English skills, combat social isolation and foster relationships, in Vancouver. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Vancouver group tackles loneliness, language barriers through conversation

The problem of social isolation, which can have serious consequences on a person’s mental health and mortality

Amie Peacock describes her mother as “a social butterfly,” but when she came to visit her in Vancouver from the Philippines a lack of friends and a language barrier left her miserable and lonely.

“I couldn’t imagine there are more people like her in our city and, sure enough, when I started looking at the cause and effects of social isolation, I realized that the problem is so much greater than what I had imagined,” Peacock said.

Although her mother ended up leaving six months after arriving in 2001, Peacock resolved to tackle the issue.

“To me, social isolation can affect rich, poor, young or old,” she said.

The problem of social isolation, which can have serious consequences on a person’s mental health and mortality, gained international awareness when the United Kingdom appointed a minister of loneliness in January. Vancouver’s Seniors Advisory Committee has developed a report on the issue and delivered its recommendations to city council last month.

Related: Experts to gather in Vancouver for Canada’s first drug-use recovery conference

In 2016, with help from Little Mountain Neighbourhood House, Peacock launched Beyond the Conversation, a volunteer organization that helps people practice their English skills and foster relationships.

Groups meet on a weekly basis in community centres, churches and coffee shops to discuss anything that’s pertinent to them at the time, from Christmas traditions to current events. The subject matter is determined by the group and even touches on basic social interactions, like how to create small talk with neighbours.

At Victoria Drive Community Hall, up to 30 seniors whose first language is predominately Mandarin or Cantonese, meet every Wednesday morning.

Theresa Gee, a retired elementary school teacher, writes English phrases on a board related to celebrating Chinese New Year, the main focus of a recent discussion.

The English skill level varies among the members. Some can carry on a conversation while others, particularly those in their 70s and 80s, speak only a few words, Gee said. People with stronger language skills help translate for others who might get stuck throughout the discussions.

Silinia Law, 69, grew up in Hong Kong and is among those who already spoke some English. She joined the group when it was first designed exclusively as a social gathering, but said she suggested to Gee that she teach English as well.

“A lot of people, they want to communicate with the other people but then they don’t know how to speak some simple words. We are living in an English-speaking society, we need to communicate with local people,” she said.

While Gee sees people making significant gains, it’s not just better language skills that mark the success of the meetings.

“Really in the guise of learning more English, they are actually benefiting socially and connecting with each other and making new friends,” Gee said.

Law, who comes to the group with her husband, agrees that it’s made a huge difference in her social life after feeling she had no friends or relatives to connect with.

“When I (was) first coming here, I feel very lonely and my husband asked me, ‘What is wrong with you,’ ” she said. “Then (we) come here and we meet some friends and we’re talking together and then we feel happy.”

There are 11 similar groups that meet across the city and its membership is not exclusively seniors, Peacock said. A number of younger immigrants and refugees have joined the groups.

“We really need to foster their sense of belonging,” Peacock said of the younger members.

While language classes and seniors programming exist throughout the city, cost barriers keep people on limited incomes away, said Don Morrow, president of Victoria Drive Community Hall.

“These are senior people who basically brought up their kid’s kids, so … this is the first chance they’ve had to actually learn English,” he said.

“Most of these people don’t have much disposable income, so for them to come here for basically nothing is a big thing for them.”

Peacock said she’s exploring the idea of setting up groups in highrise apartment buildings. She also plans to set up 10 more groups throughout Metro Vancouver this year.

Linda Givetash, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Innisfail RCMP respond to fatal vehicle collision

A 22-year-old driver was ejected and pronounced deceased on scene

Central Alberta Buccaneers pillage Vandals 64-19

Bucs’ notch second win of the season convincingly

Young man from Tees dies in tragic collision

The incident occurred early Saturday morning at Clive

WATCH: Lots of action this year at the Innisfail Pro Rodeo

Rain doesn’t stop crowds from cheering on some of the best in rodeo action

Police: Taxi driver who hit 8 Moscow pedestrians fell asleep

Two Mexican World Cup fans were among those hit

From marijuana beer to pot cookies, Canadian companies creating cannabis edibles

Manufacturers think that edibles will do well with users who don’t want to smoke or vape

Privacy lawyer warns against victim blaming in recent sextortion scams

Perpetrators get sexual photos of the victim and threaten to share them with friends and families

Amber Alert cancelled after girl, 7, found safe in Quebec

She was found shortly after Quebec provincial police issued the alert

Man, 21, charged in Toronto playground shooting that injured 2 young girls

Sheldon Eeriya of Markham, Ont., was arrested on Friday

‘It’s daunting:’ Family of paralyzed Broncos player preparing for next phase

Ryan Straschnitzki is undergoing physiotherapy in Philadelphia after becoming paralyzed in bus crash

Woman must pay musician ex-boyfriend $350K for sabotaging coveted opportunity

Ontario Superior Court justice lambasted Jennifer Lee for ‘despicable conduct’ against Eric Abramovitz

Most Read