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Being Neighborli

Photo credit Tae Hoon Kim

Informed by family experience, Karen Yip builds connections between students and seniors.

karen with mom

Coming up with an idea is easy. Breathing life into that idea, Karen Yip has discovered, is a whole different story. Add a pandemic into the mix, and you have the recipe for a life-changing experience.

Yip is an innovator who doesn’t shy away from change. After earning a law degree from UBC, she started her career in 1992 as a corporate commercial lawyer. Three years later, she started teaching International Business Law at the former McRae Institute for International Management at Capilano College.

Today, she shares her expertise with students in CapU’s School of Legal Studies and teaches risk management to tourism and outdoor recreation students. Beyond serving as an instructor, she has played a significant role in supporting the University’s e-portfolios and digital transformation.

“Karen has played a pivotal role as the Online Convenor for the School of Legal Studies,” said CapU President Paul Dangerfield. “She was instrumental in moving many legal studies courses online, well before the current pandemic, making a CapU education accessible to students beyond North Vancouver.”

Straining to find balance

Two years ago, Yip was struggling to juggle the relentless and competing demands of maintaining a house and raising kids on the North Shore, together with caring for her aging parents — all the while supporting her students and teaching full time at CapU.

karen portrait Karen Yip is finding ways to connect students and seniors during the pandemic and beyond. Photo by Tae Hoon Kim.

Like many seniors, her 84-year-old mother and 87-year-old father want to maintain as much independence as they can; but, they can’t do everything they used to do. Yip assists her parents with a variety of little things, including preparing meals, taking them to medical appointments, answering computer questions or helping with yardwork.

Almost every evening, there is a phone call from one of her parents with a problem that often has a simple solution, such as trouble searching for a website (use Google) or determining why the remote control isn’t working (change the batteries).

Some of their needs are more crucial, including various ailments requiring daily assistance. Her father has diverticulitis and is susceptible to developing ulcers that bleed, and the blood loss leads to dizziness and risk of falling.

Since the start of the pandemic, he has been in the hospital three times. Due to COVID-19, the family could not visit him, leaving them feeling disconnected from his care.

Following his second hospital stay, his balance was suffering. One-third of people age 65 and older will fall at least once a year, which can lead to further health complications. Doctors told her father to use a walker or wheelchair, but he refused.

Karen, with her hand on her mom's shoulder, serving lunch to her parents
Yip helps her parents with a meal at their home in December 2020. Photo by Tae Hoon Kim.

“I brought him his walker, but he pushed it away. A few hours after I left their house, he fell again so he was back in the hospital within 24 hours,” Yip said.

Her mom was sometimes equally hesitant to accept help.

“It’s difficult to see my parents in declining health, and it’s hard when they refuse to allow me to arrange for a seniors’ service provider to come in. Plus, the service companies for seniors are often expensive.”

Yip’s experience is not unique. Conversations with friends revolved around the balance of caring for their aging parents while raising their kids and building their careers.

According to Statistics Canada, more than 8 million Canadians provide care to a chronically ill or disabled friend or family member.

Caring for her parents was drawing on her precious time, emotions and mental energy. Understandably, she wound up exhausted and feeling there must be a better way.

Bringing a demographic divide

In 2019 and 2020, Yip took leaves of absence from teaching to upgrade her skills to support her work at CapU. Part of her course work involved creating and designing web-based applications.

“When you are learning, you have to build things,” Yip said.

She created a digital platform to foster interdisciplinary connections within universities. Later, she connected her own experience caring for her parents with the student experience and converted the platform into a web application that supports intergenerational connections.

This marriage of ideas is called Neighborli.

Having taught at CapU for more than 25 years, Yip is well-acquainted with the needs of students as well as seniors. She sees Neighborli as a way for these disparate demographics to meet in the middle and help each other.

karin “Community service is important and [Neighborli] allows me to live out that value,” said Karin Brodbeck, one of the first Neighborli volunteer students.

Neighborli was designed to be a digital incubator to increase intergenerational engagement. The concept goes beyond students helping seniors — the differentiator is proximity. It is students helping seniors nearby to re-connect the lost ties between these generations.

“Students today live in a digital world, and they are connected through their phones, but that is not the case for seniors,” Yip said. “Neighborli offers a means to bridge the disconnect — for students to share stories and learn to engage with the older generation.” 

The intention is for students to assist seniors with what the provincial government calls “instrumental activities of daily living,” such as picking up groceries and prescriptions.

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Relating to seniors will be a critical skill for most students when they leave school, explained Yip. With Canada’s aging population, seniors will form the primary clientele for people working in almost any field, and it’s important to build an empathic understanding of their needs.

The program would start as a volunteer service. However, Yip aims to make it a paid service that recognizes students for their time, while remaining affordable for seniors.

With a concept, rationale, and basic website in hand, Yip had the beginnings of something great, but she needed a team to make it fly.

From concept to reality

A grant from CapU’s Office of Creative Activity, Research and Scholarship allowed Yip to hire two students — Communication Studies student Vanessa Parrotta and Business student Jake Jordan — as research assistants in 2020.

At the same time, word began to spread about Neighborli. Local non-profit organizations welcomed news of a program that could help fill a gap in seniors' services on the North Shore. Yip and the students heard stories of seniors struggling with loneliness during the pandemic. It reaffirmed the validity of what she was trying to accomplish.

“We were initially hired to start researching the seniors’ home care industry to see where Neighborli would fit and tie together Karen's vision,” said Jordan.

In 2020, he and Parrotta conducted market research, determining the target market, doing a competitive analysis and assisting with the website design.

jacob “Neighborli is trying to take away the stigma around needing help,” said Jacob Jordan, a student research assistant. Photo by Tae Hoon Kim.

Jordan and Parrotta now feel invested. This term they are helping determine what is required to bring Neighborli to the community, how best to deliver it, what training is required for students and what services could be provided by students.

They see Neighborli as a hybrid between the seniors’ services companies and volunteer-run community service groups in the marketplace. There is nothing quite like it out there.

“It’s an opportunity for students, but it’s also not intimidating for older adults,” said Jordan. “Neighborli is trying to take away the stigma around needing help and just provide the simple help you get from your neighbours, what neighbours have always done. We’re kind of losing this right now in society.”

For Parrotta, Neighborli is personal. She feels a generational disconnect with her grandparents, and she has watched her mother try and struggle to get her grandparents to accept help.

“We are trying to build stronger communities through Neighborli so that it is not shameful to need help,” she said. “Plus, I think it creates empathy on the student’s part.”

vanessa “We are trying to build strong communities through Neighborli,” said Vanessa Parrotta, a student research assistant. Photo by Tae Hoon Kim.

Building a startup from the ground up became more complicated during a pandemic.

“As COVID hit, the need for Neighborli became much more critical,” said Yip. “It became a reason for students and seniors to connect and mutually help each other when everybody's suffering.”

COVID-19 exacerbated seniors’ need for connection, but at the same time, health restrictions have made it more complicated for students to meet those needs. Every day requires another pivot and change.

November 2020 was supposed to mark the launch of Neighborli in North and West Vancouver. However, new heightened public health guidelines put those plans on hiatus. It felt like circumstances beyond their control were putting up walls around their collective dream. By December 2020, Yip was close to throwing in the towel.

Fortunately, 2021 is looking brighter for Neighborli and the team is targeting a possible launch in the spring.

Karen Yip walking out of a Chinese restaurant with a bag of food
Yip picks up a meal for her parents from a restaurant in West Vancouver in January 2021. Photo by Tae Hoon Kim.

With the ongoing pandemic, the small but growing team of student volunteers will assist seniors with grocery or prescription pickups, and connect through “happy chats” by phone.

“To see my students develop and build something that’s going to be helpful to CapU students — that is thrilling,” Yip said. “It’s exciting is to see the responses we’ve had so far from other people, other family caregivers who are my age, who have the same struggles that I do.”

“It’s exciting to use the technology we have available to solve a common problem.”

Empowered by an infectious enthusiasm and a concrete, empirical need for better seniors’ care, Yip is building something with strength behind it to grow: something that is meaningful to friends, seniors and students.

It may begin locally today, but perhaps someday we’ll see Neighborli across B.C. or even Canada, all because she had a vision and put in the effort to make it a reality.