COLUMN: How to make Nelson a more compassionate community

From columnist Mike Stolte

By Mike Stolte

Is Nelson a compassionate community?

Whoa! That is a big and loaded question. Obviously, it depends on what a compassionate community means to you. What if you had no family here (as is the case for many in Canada’s most nomadic province) and you were suddenly faced with a serious illness where you could no longer function independently?

Who might come to your aid? Organize meals? Pick up groceries? Walk your dog? Be there to lend an ear or offer comfort? Assist with life-changing decisions? Some of us are lucky enough to have partners, family, or good friends who would not hesitate to step in. Many do not.

Recently, an acquaintance of mine was diagnosed with early onset dementia. It is the stuff of many a nightmare. Eight friends stepped in, some who barely knew each other, and shared the load of helping out and facilitating the transition to assisted living. These people — I will call them the Awesome Eight — through stunning and selfless action exemplify what a compassionate community might look like.

Thankfully, this is not an isolated incident. While we read about the world’s warts and diseases every day, many people quietly go about the critical tasks of reaching out to those in need, loving their families, or serving their communities.

Over the last century we have removed responsibility for health and care from families and communities, outsourcing it to a health care system which, today, simply cannot cope with ever-growing needs and demands (health care will soon eat 60 per cent of the total provincial budget, up from 40 per cent, 25 years ago).

About 10 years ago, a physician in the UK realized that health outcomes were better in communities where there was a network of support to complement the health care system.

In fact, health care costs plummeted by 30 per cent in one English town that deliberately enlisted the community in performing compassionate acts, targeting the frail, seriously ill, those approaching end of life, and those who were grieving, effectively creating a safety net that complemented the health care system.

What started in England has now spread as an international movement — called Compassionate Communities — to India, Europe, Australia and now, Canada.

How can you become a more compassionate citizen? Start by smiling and greeting those you don’t even know. In an era where social isolation and loneliness have been proven to be more serious health threats than obesity or smoking, a little smile can go a long way.

Meet your neighbours like the Aussies do. There’s a block party movement going on Down Under that is rebuilding neighbourhoods and strengthening communities. A neighbourhood potluck in the dark of winter will warm more than the belly. Find out who might be vulnerable in your neighbourhood, and make it a point to check in on them occasionally to grab a few groceries, shovel some snow, or share a hot cuppa.

I will be writing this column once a month over the next six months to explore ways we can locally build this movement, to become a more compassionate community. I invite examples and stories from you to share. While Compassionate Nelson is focusing on the frail, seriously ill, those approaching end of life, and those who are grieving, the ripple effect can benefit us all.

Mike Stolte is the director of dialogue and education for Nelson’s Kalein Centre and part of Compassionate Nelson, a Nelson-based movement that envisions a more compassionate Nelson. He can be reached at mike@kaleincentre.org.

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