The City of Onkaparinga’s Social Connections Program is helping older residents rediscover the activities they enjoyed earlier in life.
The City of Onkaparinga’s Social Connections Program has helped 94-year-old Les Winkles rediscover his love for kayaking, a pastime he started as a five-year-old with his older brother at the family’s property at Blanchetown on the banks of the Murray River.
“My brother and I made canoes out of scrap sheets of corrugated iron, plugging the holes with tar,” Les recalls. “One day my brother went off to chase rabbits with the neighbour’s kids, so I took our makeshift canoe into a shallow part of the river. The plugs came out and in I went!”
Undeterred, Les’s love for paddling on the river continued to grow, resulting in a decades-long career as a maker of fibreglass canoes in his workshop near the family home in Gawler. Les spent six years giving kayaking instruction to Scout groups, and circa 1991 he paddled under Naval escort across Gulf St Vincent from Point Parham to Ardrossan to raise enough money to support the purchase of a building for the Elsie Ey Kindergarten.
“I felt safe to make the trip across the gulf on my own, but the Navy said I was mad and opted to follow me in an 18-foot launch,” Les says.
Retiring to Seaford from Gawler spelt the end of Les’s time on the water for several decades—until he and his late wife, Margaret, joined council’s Social Connections Program in 2019 after being referred through the Australian Government’s My Aged Care portal.
When word got around that Les was an experienced kayaker, he was encouraged to join a group of paddlers on the Onkaparinga River in an activity being organised by council’s Social Connections Program and supported by local business Ezy Kayaks.
“I felt like my old self again,” Les says. “I realised how much I missed canoeing and kayaking. It had been 35 years since I’d been on the river, but the correct way to paddle came back to me naturally.”
The Social Connections Program is open to residents aged 65 years and older. The program currently has more than 300 registered participants who are being supported to improve their health and lifestyle, become more involved in the community, build social networks, learn new skills, or reconnect to a passion they thought had been lost from their life.
“Age is no barrier to activity,” says Social Connections Coordinator Sandy Johnson-Jones. “In collaboration with other agencies and local businesses, we ask our participants, ‘What will make a difference to you?’. Then we see how we can make it achievable.”
A range of indoor and outdoor activities are offered, but it’s ultimately the participants who shape the monthly program.
Seeing friendships flourish is the real beauty of the program, Sandy says.
“Some people find it difficult to join new groups in the community, but the Social Connections Program eases a lot of those fears. Our new members sometimes need a little encouragement, but once we introduce them to coffee meetings and lunches before they start attending other activities, we see them really enjoying themselves.
“The participants make the program inspirational. They have embraced the program as a community model and taken ownership of it,” Sandy says.
Les is looking forward to his next kayaking adventure and helping people new to kayaking learn how to safely step into the vessel and use the paddle. He’s also keen to bring his fishing rods out of storage and join the Social Connections Program’s Fish Feeders group that meets on Friday mornings at Port Noarlunga Jetty.
“There’s nothing better than being on the river or by the ocean,” Les says. “I love it.”
The Social Connections Program is funded by the City of Onkaparinga, the Department of Health and the Commonwealth Home Support Program.
The latest Social Connections newsletter can be accessed from onkaparingacity.com/Services-and-projects/Ageing-well/Social-Connections