THOMPSON-OKANAGAN - You can find one in just about every fast food joint or greasy spoon restaurant; A bunch of men, sometimes women, sitting around drinking coffee, shooting the bull — a coffee club for lack of a better name.
If they don’t look like they’re in a hurry to be anywhere, it’s because they aren’t. Most are long retired, some are widowed.
The conversation ebbs and flows touching on everything; sports, politics, news of the day. It’s all kept very light and the guys, better behaved when one of the wives is there, spend as much time gently insulting each other as they do on more weighty matters.
But ask them if hanging out at the coffee club could be helping their mental health and there is sudden silence.
“I suppose, though I never really thought of it,” Dwayne Bauer says. He's a nine-year regular at the coffee club at a McDonalds in Kelowna.
The chatty retiree, originally from Saskatoon, has jumped into coffee clubs the world over — even in a McDonalds in Prague, the Czech Republic.
“It gets you out of the house, gives you something to do in the morning, keeps me from going crazy,” he laughs.
For Vi Sorensen, there’s no doubt these informal group gatherings are a form of self-help for seniors who, for whatever reason, may be cut off from long time friends and family.
“I would think most of them don’t even realize why they are doing it,” says Sorensen, the executive director of the Seniors Outreach and Resource Centre.
Making it worse is the mobility of modern society; it’s not uncommon for retired seniors to have adult children living thousands of miles away. Or they’ve left their original home town and their social connections, to be nearer the grandkids, Sorensen says.
“They’ve retired so they are no longer part of the outside working world. For most of us, that is our peer group, it keeps us actively communicating with people, but what do you do when that’s gone?”
Sorensen is so enamoured with coffee clubs and their positive effect on seniors, her group has seeded a couple of them in local restaurants.
“There are enough studies out there that say social contact is critical to mental health. Isolation very often leads to depression."
The Seniors Outreach people have also taken it a step further by starting a coffee club at the resource centre, one that doesn’t require the one thing many people lack — the courage to walk up to a group of strangers, pull up a chair and introduce yourself.
“You have to be the gregarious type, that’s for sure,” Bauer confirms. "There are people who would never do that. But if you can do it, you will always find someone who shares your interests.”
Her coffee club at the Seniors Centre is hosted by volunteers who will break the ice by introducing them to everyone and will even call them at home to help ease their fears.
For his part, Bauer says he’s made lasting friendships at the coffee club even though he didn’t know any of them when he first sat down.
“The friendship doesn’t end at the door,” he says. “If I don’t show up for a week or so I will get an email or a call asking how things are going."
In Kamloops they are taking it one step further. With a little help from Victoria, the Seniors Kitchen is hoping to bring seniors together to make their own food and coffee. If it works as intended, they hope to get new generations in there with them to pass on skills.
You can find coffee clubs at almost all the fast food restaurants in town, especially those which serve free coffee refills, but Sorensen says senior isolation cuts across socio-economic lines.
“It’s certainly tougher for people who don’t have a lot of money but we’ve seen people in this town who are very well off and they are in the same boat,” she says. “It’s not about the money. They suffer from the same things that create isolation.”
To contact the reporter for this story, email John McDonald at email@example.com or call 250-808-0143. To contact the editor, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 250-718-2724.