Men's group generates hope

A group of men sit in a circle, each one wearing an identical blue hat. A bare-headed rookie, a new addition from the palliative unit, is one of three exceptions. Some heads are bowed, eyes closed. But when the wisecracks start flowing from members, smiles appear. And when called upon to weigh in on the topic at hand, each participant gives a well-thought-out answer.

This is the men’s discussion group at St. Joseph’s Auxiliary Hospital, a one-hour weekly session where male residents discuss current events and share a few laughs. Everyone is welcome and everybody is engaged.

The conversation is sprinkled with groans and guffaws, smiles and laughs. But when a participant with a speech impediment shares his opinion on a hot-button political issue, there is not one interruption until he finishes his thought.

“People just listen and they never show any impatience. I tell you, it’s magical because the respect here is probably one of the greatest things,” says group co-founder Alain Nogue, who has been leading the Tuesday morning group for almost five years. “And the community. A sense of community is very important, belonging to a group.”

Alain starts the session with a joke while his longtime co-leader Pete Adams hands out donuts to the 17 participants. Alain recaps some news headlines from the week and then opens the floor for discussion. The goal is to recreate a coffee shop atmosphere.

“You even look at the people who sit around at Tim Hortons and have coffee together in the morning, they’re talking about their opinion, about politics or the weather or whatever,” says Cecilia Marion, Site Administrator at St. Joseph’s. 

"One of the things a number of people have told me as they age and move into centres, the one thing that happens is nobody asks you for your opinion anymore.”

Discussion ranges from political issues to restaurant tipping practices, which opens the door to good-natured ribbing. But the joking only reinforces the camaraderie and dignity felt by each man.

“A lot of these people have undergone all kinds of traumatic experiences with their health, and they’ve lost their self-confidence,” says Alain. “So here you try to rebuild that.”

Newcomer George Schroffel receives a signature blue hat, making him an official member of the discussion group.

Volunteers, staff and families alike see the difference the group makes. The wife of a palliative care patient who had attended their weekly meetings for a few months approached Alain at a barbecue event to say thanks.

“She said, ‘Do you realize that my husband has not eaten a meal in a month and a half, and today he ate a full hamburger?’ She said, ‘I can’t believe it.’”

The men’s group is part of an approach St. Joseph’s wants to study and replicate. It recently secured funding for 15 months of research into how effectively volunteers interact with residents, based on observing the men’s group and a card-playing club. It plans to use the findings to develop a program for recruiting and training more volunteers. Alain calls it “Living Before Dying.”

“We have to live right to the end, fully.”

Philippe Dube is one of the residents who knows the difference the men’s group makes. He says he used to go to physiotherapy on Tuesdays and then go back to his room and just lie in bed.

“It made a big change in my life,” says Philippe. “Gets me out of my room, gets me connected with other people, a wider group of friends.”

Cecilia says even the female residents in St. Joseph’s have noticed how effective the men’s group is, and they’re talking about starting their own.

Aaron Thompson, 44, says the benefits extend well beyond one hour a week.

“You look forward to coming here. Every Tuesday, you look forward to it,” says Aaron, a former high-school social studies teacher who has multiple sclerosis. “And you see people around, you say hi, so it produces a community.”

(From left) Alain Nogue plans the discussion topics with fellow volunteers Sameh Sawires and Pete Adams.

Alain enjoys the community, too.

“People ask me, ‘Why do you do it?’ I have more fun than they do.”

And that connection among members can start as early as the first meeting. After his first men’s group, the rookie from the palliative unit receives his member hat, and plans to return.

“He told me, ‘I’m back next week. This is really fantastic,’” says Alain. “You’ve got to be able to generate hope. And in this case, he’s looking forward to next week.”

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