Walter is just finishing up a walk with Buster, his mixed-breed mutt, taking short, shallow strides through the slush on a wet December morning.
Buster walks patiently at his master’s heels as they walk up the short path to Walter’s small house. As Walter puts on a kettle for tea, he listens to his telephone messages. His daughter calls to break the news. Her tiny voice on the old answering machine, remorseful and awkward, explains she won’t be able to make it home from Calgary for the holidays. Walter hears his six-year-old grand-daughter playing in the background. His face shows anguish.
Walter is 86 years-old. His wife passed away 10 years earlier. While his family always lived in the Strait area, he finds Buster is the only friend he sees regularly, and conversations with humans grow sparse. Walter is lucky enough to have his children help out with money when necessary; though, he rarely asks. He has a hard time getting to medical appointments since has no longer has a driver’s license. Public transportation is incredibly inconvenient. But even more frustrating for Walter is the loss of independence.
Walter used to work at the mill and he remembers the Christmas parties he and his wife used to host for his work buddies and their wives. Many of them are gone now – moved or deceased. Charlie is still alive. He lives in Halifax but he might as well live on the moon. Walter watches what goes on in people’s lives through Facebook. But Charlie doesn’t like computers. When Walter and sees all the smiling, happy people sometimes it makes him feel on the outside and that makes him lonelier.
Walter gives Buster’s head a caress and sits down to his supper, alone in a house that used to be filled with voices. Their echoes are fading.
Walter and Buster do not actually exist. They are based on a popular 2015 German ad for a supermarket chain (search EDEKA Weihnachtsclip – #heimkommen on YouTube). But in a way, they do exist. Don’t we all know someone like Walter? It’s the kind of universal story that nets 40 million views because it rings true.
The Strait area has one of the highest populations of seniors in Canada. That puts a strain on local health care, as well as the transportation and housing systems necessary to take care of the elderly. The fact that many seniors live in rural settings intensifies the lack of services. Communities here seem to know intuitively that older folks need the kind of help government services cannot always give. So, they do their best to find ways to fill the gaps.
The German Christmas vignette ends in an unrealistic plot twist. Walter fakes his own death to get his family in the same place for his funeral. When the deception is revealed, they laugh at the joke and soak up family togetherness. Though it is unlikely people would find such a trick funny in reality, they pour each other glasses of wine and smile. But for the figurative Walters living all around us, the season is still lonely.
While we tend to live in communities that wrap their collective arms around those who need it most at this time, people like Walter will always feel a little hole in their hearts while dreaming of a Christmas just like the ones they used to know.
To end off this inaugural Mind – Body – Spirit column, here is the link to seasonal services provided by 211: http://ns.211.ca/seasonal. Maybe even better is to just ask around in your community. But I’m not sure anything beats the authentic caring of Cape Breton culture quite like seeking out people, heading over with cookies, tea and maybe even a fiddle, to share space with someone who is lonely.
The Mind – Body – Spirit Project’s goal is to improve the quality of life for seniors in the Strait area. It is entering its second phase of creating a framework for community-based, volunteer-led programming. The programming addresses key areas of mental health and addictions, with an emphasis on the proven connection between social relationships, and feelings of inclusiveness within the community that lead to better health. The MBS grant is administered by the Dr. Kingston Memorial Community Health Centre and is funded by Nova Scotia Department of Health and Wellness and the Municipality of the County of Richmond.
Dawn Ostrem is project coordinator for the MIND-BODY-SPIRIT Project. She can be reached at: email@example.com.