By Fran Yanor, Local Journalism Initiative

Social connection and physical activity could be the antidotes to COVID-19 isolation in rural seniors. If so, Pete Amyoony is living it large.

“The COVID thing doesn’t really change my life very much,” said Amyoony, a senior who has lived for years on a rural farm near Dunster. “I’ve been living on the land for so many years now, I’m pretty independent that way.”

He has a freezer full of food and a root cellar with potatoes, carrots and beets, and goes to the nearest town, McBride, to grocery shop once a week.

“I’m not totally self-sustaining,” the 79-year-old said. “I can’t grow junk food.”

Amyoony does, however, know how to grow nearly anything else.

One of the original organizers of the Dunster, McBride, and Valemount farmers market, the horticulturalist is in the process of transitioning the bulk of his operations to a young couple who recently moved onto the farm with him, but still oversees a thriving greenhouse and a collection of 208 varieties of heritage tomatoes, from which he grows up to 80 varieties for tomatoes and safe seeds.

A busy, robust lifestyle may not only combat loneliness, but also dementia. A 2012 study published from the Netherlands published in The Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry found that loneliness was a predictor of dementia in later life.

“I really feel sorry for people who are stuck in an apartment building where they can’t get out that much, and if they do get out, they got to be careful,” said Amyoony, who recommended gardening as the perfect pastime for people feeling trapped at home. Even a person living in a condo can grow a box garden, he said.

“Gardening to me is the most relaxing and amazing thing a person can do to get in touch with yourself and with nature,” said the former teacher, whose farm is surrounded by mountains. “When I’m in my playpen, which is what I call my greenhouses, I’m doing my yoga and meditation and everything all at once.”

Amyoony is one of 20 per cent of British Columbians over 65 years-old and an estimated 100,000 seniors who live in rural communities in B.C. According to Better at Home, a United Way agency-funded program that delivers home support to help seniors stay in their homes, in 2017, 61 percent of the Robson Valley Better at Home recipients lived alone, and of those, 40 per cent were men. One of the services provided by the home support agency ever since the pandemic-driven days of self-isolation is a weekly chat with seniors living at home.

Even though Amyoony provides support to other seniors, he himself gets called twice a week by Better at Home volunteers to see if he’s okay.
“It’s so funny because they say, we know you’re volunteering for other seniors and here we are trying to make sure that you’re okay,” laughed Amyoony. “But I said, ‘No, that’s great. Just call me if that’s your job.’”

A longitudinal study by a team of European researchers indicated that social engagement was correlated with a decreased risk of dementia.

For the seniors on Amyoony’s phone tree, “ I call them to make sure that they don’t need something,” he said. “There’s three or four of them here that are quite isolated.”

To ease their aloneness, he visits and brings them meals, “so they don’t have to be quite so tied down,” he said.

Meanwhile, Amyoony doesn’t feel lonely, he said. “It’s a good life; I don’t seem to want for anything.”

Besides his greenhouse meditations, he plays music for an hour or two a day. “I’m still learning; I took up the fiddle at age 72,” he said. After the fiddle, guitar and piano and guitar, what’s next?

“I still want to do the banjo and a couple of other instruments,” he said.

[email protected]