Healthy Living in the North

Community Health Stars: Peter Nielsen

One of the neatest things about the Community Health Stars program has been the range of amazing activities that residents of northern B.C. take on to make their communities healthier places to live, work, and play. From promoting healthy eating in Terrace schools to walking around the world in Valemount, Community Health Stars represent a wide range of passions, communities, and activities.

As a resident of Quesnel deeply committed to helping seniors, Northern Health’s Community Health Star for the month of March adds to this outstanding variety! In addition, the issues that this month’s Community Health Star works on have a lot in common with the key findings of Northern Health’s 2013 community consultation, Let’s talk about Healthy Aging and Seniors’ Wellness. Northern Health is pleased to name Peter Nielsen as this month’s Community Health Star!

Peter is a retiree who has always had a passion for helping seniors. He has created and supported several groups to address a wide range of issues impacting seniors and I had the pleasure of chatting with Peter during a rare break in between his many community engagements!

Could you tell me a little bit about yourself?

Group of five individuals stand in front of a sign announcing the future location of the Quesnel Seniors Housing Project.

Northern Health’s Community Health Star for the month of March is Peter Nielsen. Peter is active in seniors issues in Quesnel and has played a key role in work on a local seniors housing project.

After working in home care on Vancouver Island for several years, I returned to Quesnel (where I first moved in 1971) to be with family nearly 10 years ago.

My passion for helping seniors started at a young age. When I was 13, my family took in an older friend who needed ongoing care and I took on a lot of those caregiving tasks. I related well to this individual and have found that I relate well to all seniors. I especially enjoy hearing their amazing stories!

To pursue this passion, since moving back to Quesnel, I’ve gotten involved with the Lions Club, the Lions Housing Society, and the Fraser Village Home Society. I also started the Voice for North Cariboo Seniors.

What does a healthy community look like to you?

For me, a healthy community meets the needs of everyone. For seniors in particular, meeting their needs includes a few different considerations, and I have tried to be involved in all of these issues in Quesnel:

  • Affordable housing for seniors
  • Food security
  • The ability to make ends meet
  • Affordable medical supplies and pharmaceuticals
  • Accessible spaces
  • Social support

I think that housing and the safety and security that brings is so important for seniors’ well-being. To support that goal, I became president of the Lions Housing Society, a group working to build an independent living housing complex in Quesnel. We just purchased the land for the project and I’m excited to see construction starting soon! I also sit on the board of the Fraser Village Home Society.

Through the Lions Club, we also build ramps for seniors and others in wheelchairs. We buy the material and then have a work bee to build, paint, and secure the ramps.

Social support for seniors is crucial, too! Through a group that we formed a few years ago, we visit a residential care facility in Quesnel during the holidays to give gifts, decorate, and spend time with the residents – I was even Santa one year!

Looking ahead, I’d like to look at ways to support widowers who are struggling with loneliness and isolation. I think that a gathering place would go a long way towards making them healthier and more connected.

When it comes to seniors’ ability to meet their needs, one thing that a lot of people don’t know is that not all seniors collect a full Old Age Security pension or draw from the Canada Pension Plan. Many farmers and ranchers grew up pinching pennies and would have been living day-to-day so often didn’t contribute to government programs during their working years. Now, these individuals are struggling to make ends meet. Seniors are very proud people, too, so even in situations like this, they hesitate to ask for help. The onus is on us all to step up, check in with our older neighbours, and make sure that they are OK.

Although seniors issues take up most of my time and a special place in my heart, through the Lions, I am also able to support the Two Rivers Boxing Club in Quesnel. This local boxing club provides young people with a place to gather, be active, and develop their self-esteem. The local coach pays for a lot of expenses out-of-pocket so the Lions and I do what we can to offset the costs of tournaments, travel, and other club activities.

How did you get involved in seniors issues?

Man lifting a grocery bag out of a truck.

Peter’s message for others in northern B.C. is simple: “check on your neighbours. If you know a senior, keep an eye on them.” After checking on some of his neighbours, Peter identified food security as an important issue facing seniors and began to make regular deliveries of healthy food to seniors in need.

It’s been a soft spot in my life, all my life! I enjoy talking to seniors; I always have. I find them very interesting and appreciate their stories. They can often be a forgotten group but I love them and I gravitate towards them.

When we moved back to Quesnel – having worked with seniors for some time – I noticed a few things in our community that were missing for seniors. My wife became my sounding board and eventually she got tired and just said “do something about it!” And I did! I created Voice for North Cariboo Seniors three years ago. This group holds monthly meetings where seniors can come together to learn about different issues. We had someone talk about taxes last month, we share information from the RCMP about scams targeting seniors, and we’ve brought in Northern Health to discuss health issues. We’ve got 150 seniors on our call list to invite to each meeting!

I’m also involved in delivering food to seniors in need. As a group, we drop off healthy food options to 50-60 seniors every month. The Lions Club and other community members support us with food donations. The focus on food started with a visit to a senior’s home where I saw only cat food in the fridge but no cat. This was so sad to witness and sparked a passion for me to look at food issues that seniors face.

One of the reasons that I got involved and have stayed involved is that seniors don’t like people knowing their plight. I have found seniors to be very proud – they’re scared of being recognized in a donation line – and often they go without instead of asking for help.

What does “healthy aging” mean to you?

For me, healthy aging means respect for seniors in all aspects. It means seniors being able to live in safe, low-cost, and healthy places. It means being aware of seniors issues since they are so often a blind spot for so many of us.

What would you like to say to other residents of northern B.C.?

It’s simple: check on your neighbours. If you know a senior, keep an eye on them. Drop off some baking and say hello! Winter can be especially difficult for seniors because of slips and falls.

And remember that often, seniors won’t come to you for help. So look out for them, keep your eyes open.

It only takes a couple of people to get something amazing started!

The Northern Health Community Health Stars program shines a light on community members across northern B.C. who, like Peter, are doing exceptional work, on their own time, to promote health and wellness in their community. To nominate a Community Health Star in your community, visit the Northern Health website.

Vince Terstappen

About Vince Terstappen

Vince Terstappen is a Project Assistant with the health promotions team at Northern Health. He has an undergraduate and graduate degree in the area of community health and is passionate about upstream population health issues. Born and raised in Calgary, Vince lived, studied, and worked in Saskatoon, Victoria, and Vancouver before moving to Vanderhoof in 2012. When not cooking or baking, he enjoys speedskating, gardening, playing soccer, attending local community events, and Skyping with his old community health classmates who are scattered across the world. Vince works with Northern Health program areas to share healthy living stories and tips through the blog and moderates all comments for the Northern Health Matters blog. (Vince no longer works with Northern Health, we wish him all the best.)