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Vickie Cammack and Al Etmanski received the Order of Canada for their work at PLAN and Plan Institute. Al Etmanski’s new book is called The Power of Disability.

The imperative to keep our social distance as the novel coronavirus spreads means that life is becoming tougher for vulnerable Canadians. Many will lose their community connections and become even more isolated in their homes. Some will die.

We know the virus can kill. We also know from previous emergencies, such as heat waves and SARS, that social isolation kills too. Elderly relatives and neighbours, sick friends, people with disabilities, those with underlying medical conditions or weak immune systems and their caregivers are especially vulnerable during this pandemic.

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Social connections may be the difference between life and death.

We have been connecting people who are isolated and vulnerable to caring neighbours and community members for more than three decades. We’ve learned to be intentional about reaching out. Just as washing hands can no longer be treated casually, neither should connecting to those who must remain in their homes alone.

We urge all Canadians to make a list of people they are concerned about and make a plan to stay in touch with them. Here are five ideas to get you started:

Don’t wait to be asked

For a variety of reasons (pride, past hurts, fear of being turned down, loss of confidence, confusion) not everyone will ask for help – even as their situation worsens. Keep the connection alive. Be confident and cheerful. Don’t give up even if the first couple of responses are lukewarm or if you haven’t been thanked.

Make it a team effort

A small group or network is the best way to share the things that need to be done, especially if the needs are great. A team effort allows you to take care of your other responsibilities and allows you to spell each other off while ensuring the person who is the focus of your concern is never neglected and is taken care of in a timely way. It helps to sort out who is doing what and when.

The latest technology helps

So does old technology like knocking on the door and speaking from a distance of two metres away, or picking up the phone. WhatsApp, Slack, Nextdoor, FaceTime, private Facebook groups, e-mail and telephone trees are simple ways to stay in touch and keep everyone up to date. You may want to try video conferencing platforms like Google Hangouts. Zoom is good for people who lip-read, and the business version includes closed captioning and transcripts.

Little things make a big difference

There are many simple ways to assist: a phone call every day or so, a Netflix subscription, a bag of cookies, running an errand, paying bills online, bringing in the garbage cans, picking up prescriptions, changing a light bulb, exchanging emergency-contact information, walking the dog or checking someone’s internet connection.

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The majority of people care and want to help

We can’t emphasize this enough. Despite what you may have read or thought, caring is in Canada’s DNA. Don’t be afraid to ask for or accept help. You will actually be doing everyone a favour, including yourself.

We founded Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network in 1989 to support families planning for the well-being of disabled children after their parents die. We do this in two ways: developing a network of support, sometimes called circle of friends, to reduce social isolation and loneliness; and increasing financial resources for disabled people. Our organization has a team of community connectors across Canada, and they are now distributing a regular bulletin online and on social media focused on practical tips for reaching out to vulnerable people.

Companion organization Plan Institute will answer any questions about social connections on their hotline (1-844-311-7526).

It may not be possible to reach out and touch people you care about during this terrible pandemic. However, it is more than possible to stay in touch. In combination with our health-care system, there is no better way to get through these tough times and protect our most vulnerable populations.

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