Two U of T faculties join forces to boost mental and physical health of local seniors
Two University of Toronto faculties are teaming up on a new pilot project that aims to improve the physical and mental health of local seniors through a combination of exercise and talk therapy.
Partnering with the Jane/Finch Centre in northwest Toronto – a multi-service community centre focusing on poverty reduction – the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education developed the Talk It Out, Work It Out program for the centre’s clients, particularly seniors.
Graduate students from each faculty also contributed to the program’s curriculum.
Kinesiology students focused on the “Work It Out” section of the program, where participants do some basic exercise before moving on to the “Talk It Out” part, where trained Master of Social Work students shepherd the clients into small groups so they can share their thoughts and concerns to the degree and depth they choose.
Over seven 1.5-hour sessions, the participants’ anxieties are soothed and their comfort level rises through the combination of physical stress release and expert peer support.
“We planned it this way so that seniors could first get activated through exercise,” says Lin Fang, associate professor of social work and Factor-Inwentash Chair in Children’s Mental Health at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work.
“Later on, as seniors were used to the Talk It Out section and needed more time for it, we switched it around so that they could have time to speak first. The program was designed to be fully integrated.”
The Talk It Out program was inspired by the growing mental health crisis during the pandemic, which hit marginalized communities hard.
Social work students were trained to provide free counselling sessions online or by phone, but Fang knew some seniors would remain resistant to the idea of counselling – even if it was free.
So she joined forces with Catherine Sabiston, a professor of exercise and sport psychology at the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education who holds a Canada Research Chair in physical activity and mental health. Sabiston had led a similar initiative called MoveU.HappyU – an exercise and mental-health coaching program overseen by KPE students from her lab to help U of T students.
Both sets of graduate students partnered on adapting their programming to meet the needs of the senior clients Fang had in mind.
They’ve since seen real progress during the sessions at the Jane/Finch Centre, where many of the seniors initially lamented the lack of social support in their lives. Not only do they now have the support of the Talk It Out, Work It Out facilitators, but participants have been coming together themselves – making new walking buddies and friendships beyond the sessions.
“That’s the best part of ‘talking it out,’” says Jane/Finch Centre program worker Sandra Anderson.
“Everyone has a story. Your story reflects what you’re going through, but I can identify with it, too. By talking, we’ve helped each other make it through another day.”