What can we do to protect seniors? Ask them what they need

The Discourse shares how an investigation grounded in the knowledge of older adults demonstrates the power of solidarity journalism.
Older adults holding out protest signs by the side of the road.
In the spring of 2022, residents took out their walker with homemade signs at the corner of Buttertubs Drive and Bowen Road to bring attention to their concerns. Photo courtesy of The Discourse.

To commemorate World News Day 2022, Indiegraf is publishing two stories: a closer look at the Camp Hope reporting process from RANGE Media reporter Carl Stegerstrom and an example of solidarity journalism and community involvement from The Discourse’s Lauren Kaljur.

It started with a Facebook message. A Nanaimo resident shared that some older residents were holding a protest.

Most of the protesters weren’t on Facebook, but some of their friends and advocates were. It’s not often we hear from older adults taking action in this way, so we decided to look into it. The Discourse reporter Julie Chadwick was the only local news reporter to show up that spring day.

What unfolded was a deep-dive, multi-month investigation into these residents’ living conditions and treatment by their nonprofit landlord, Nanaimo Affordable Housing Society (NAHS). Dozens of interviews were followed by poring over hundreds of pages of documents, brought to light and meticulously documented by the seniors themselves.

Our investigation found that many seniors living in NAHS units faced cutbacks in potential life-saving services, including wellness checks during extreme heat. In one complex, they lost a community hall and services that were the lifeblood of their relationships to each other and the broader community, empowering them to live and age with dignity. 

Residents both discussed the nuances of their problems to us and articulated solutions. In many cases, they were frustrated that functioning measures they already put in place to look out for each other — such as wellness checks, a thriving community hall, and government-sponsored service packages — had been dismantled. 

Under previous management, a robust network of board members and volunteers held fundraisers, hosted activities like bingo games, holiday meals and garage sales, kept phone lists and a newsletter to make sure tenants were accounted for and informed. They also shoveled walkways or had cooling stations to ensure they were safe during the seasons.

Older adults holding out protest signs.

After each story we published, more tips and complaints rolled in, pointing to mismanagement and, more broadly, the need for improved support from public health and housing agencies so that people can age in place safely and with dignity. 

When we realized how much time and effort this series required, we turned to our readers for help. They pitched in thousands of dollars toward this investigation — more than we requested. Some of the NAHS residents even held a social gathering and hot-dog fundraiser in the blazing sun to gain more support for the next phase of our investigation, pitching in another $100 toward our efforts.

“Sorry I  can’t support you financially, I am on a very small seniors pension. But I am happy that you are on NAHS,” wrote one reader, echoing a sentiment we heard many times over.

Older adults at hot-dog sale.
Residents gathered outdoors on a sunny day in July selling hot dogs to raise money to renew their bingo license and support The Discourse’s ongoing investigation into their nonprofit housing provider. Photo courtesy of The Discourse.

At many resource-strained news outlets, the reflex is to answer the loudest voices, or write up stories that offer a simpler narrative. It would have been easy to write off the initial protest as too complicated or inconsequential — just a few seniors having issues at their housing complex. The in-depth nature of community-driven stories like these mean they are easily ignored. 

Complicating matters is that many people we interviewed do not use the internet, and the death of the small-town paper (the Nanaimo Daily News shut down in 2016) means that local reporters are often scarce. Elderly readers haven’t always transitioned to another primary news source, and some sources are visual or hearing-impaired. They wouldn’t necessarily be able to access the stories we published had we not included audio recordings of our stories, which some of the seniors listened to together.

“Others in the building who do not have social media or even computers want to have their grievances heard and listened to,” wrote one tenant in response to a story we published. In many cases, Chadwick had to go door to door, talking to tenants so their accounts could be heard.

Those who could write to us expressed gratitude that a news outlet investigated their concerns. 

“We need people that take the community seriously and you’re allowing that to happen. Thank you for the research, interviews and excellent local reporting,” wrote another reader. 

Many said they were relieved to finally be heard. 

This kind of community reporting, grounded in the expertise of people with lived experience, is what Anita Varma and others call Solidarity Journalism. Rather than focusing on stories deemed more newsworthy or popular, we dedicated a huge amount of resources to listening to people who had been excluded from public dialogue with a focus on their human rights. 

We used “low-income seniors” throughout this series as a shorthand, but these older adults come from a diverse range of backgrounds. Beyond careers of experience, many spent retirement years giving back to their communities. Many are highly educated, former professionals or family caregivers with a ton of lived experience. 

Through our reporting we discovered that beyond the pain and frustration, residents carried concrete perspectives and actions that could lead to change. They were organizing to take charge of their own lives and advocating for their needs. We just needed to take the time to show up and listen.

This story was produced to mark World News Day 2022 on Sept. 28 when over 500 newsrooms and media support organizations united in a global campaign to show the value of fact-based journalism.


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