Brock researchers partner with community groups to evaluate Snow Buddies program

There’s nobody like a Snow Buddy.

The volunteers who shovel seniors’ driveways and walkways during Niagara’s winters through the Community Support Services of Niagara (CSSN) Snow Buddies program are at the centre of a Brock University research project now underway.

Brock Assistant Professor of Health Sciences Asif Khowaja and CSSN want everyone to know how valuable the program is for older adults, volunteers and the Niagara community at large.

Khowaja, CSSN, Age-Friendly Niagara Council and experiential learning students at Brock have formed a research partnership to explore and assess the program’s full impact.

“When I asked people from CSSN how the program is going, they told me they are losing volunteers because of fears about COVID-19, yet the demand for the service is increasing,” says Khowaja. “We thought the best way to attract volunteers would be to show them the social, psychological and economic contributions they’ve made at the individual and community level in the past.”

Head-and-shoulders photo of Brock Assistant Professor of Health Sciences Asif Khowaja.

Brock Assistant Professor of Health Sciences Asif Khowaja and his team have partnered with community groups to evaluate Community Support Services of Niagara’s Snow Buddies program.

Funding this research is a Partnership Engage Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

Khowaja’s team includes Assistant Professor of Computer Science Renata Dividino, Assistant Professor of Child and Youth Studies Heather Ramey, Undergraduate Experiential Learning Officer Janet Westbury, Age-Friendly Niagara Council Co-Chair Dominic Ventresca, CSSN Program Manager Lynne Rousseau, CSSN Program Co-ordinator Laurie Elliot Leach, and Brock undergraduate students Devangi Shah and Julia Sangueza.

The team will gather the experiences and opinions of older residents, their family members and youth volunteers through a combination of focus groups, interviews and survey questionnaires.

Khowaja says researchers want to know if, and to what extent, clear walkways and driveways have helped older adults get to grocery stores, banks, medical appointments and other support services, save money on hiring someone to clear the snow, and be able to visit family and friends, among other social and economic gains.

And there may be other subtle benefits, he says.

“As they clear off driveways, volunteers also have the opportunity to have conversations with older adults, like, ‘How is your day going so far?’” Khowaja says. “So, it’s not just about manual labour but engagement, and perhaps finding out if the older adult needs anything else.”

The researchers will also inquire about missed opportunities by not having walkways and driveways cleared of snow due to the reduction of volunteers during COVID-19.

To complement the anecdotal information, the team will be using mathematical modelling to put hard numbers to the program’s impacts.

Khowaja gives the example of the costs to families and society that would be incurred if an older adult were to fall and break a hip because of an icy driveway.

“We know the odds of a person over 70 years dying from a hip fracture are very high, around 80 per cent within six months, so by clearing the driveway, you not only avoid the cost burden on the health-care system, but you also save a life,” he says.

Also, by getting out to grocery stores and other places, the money spent by older adults will contribute to the local economy, says Khowaja.

He says the research aims to explore how future situations could be handled to ensure that youth volunteers support community-based services for older adults and can give other organizations a model to measure the value of their own volunteer programs and services.

CSSN Executive Director Carolyn Askeland says her organization is “excited” to partner with Brock University on work highlighting the health economics impacts of the Snow Buddies program.

“This research will position CSSN with much-needed data to move the program forward and will enable us to assist many more older adults in Niagara,” she says.

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