Reaching Out to Our Lonely Seniors Friendly Visitor Volunteers Provide Company to Long Island's Vulnerable Seniors
Winter months for many signify an increased amount of time spent indoors, use of creature comforts to escape the cold and more opportunity to spend time with family. For others, this time of the year means severe isolation. Many seniors, especially, face isolation in addition to physical limitations that limit their ability to get out. These vulnerable seniors often spend days, if not weeks, on their own without contact with others or any social interaction. Factors that may increase the likelihood of a senior becoming socially isolated include limited access to transportation after they can no longer drive, having little or no contact with family members, low income, having lost a spouse or partner and multiple chronic health problems. Seniors are also primary targets for financial exploitation. Loneliness can open the door to conversations with strangers and some seniors suffer from memory impairment which increases vulnerability. Scam artists are very skilled at connecting with seniors and gaining their trust. Conditions seniors face vary greatly, each with their own individual challenges. Seasonal affective disorder which occurs during months when there is less opportunity to be exposed to sunlight, may cause changes in one’s natural sleep cycle or decrease one’s serotonin levels leading to prolonged depressive episodes and other possible mental health illnesses. Alzheimer’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and spinal stenosis are just a few other examples of disabilities that take over one’s life. Often, these disabilities leave lonely seniors in a place where help from another person is vital.
Healthy Seniors, Healthy Community
It is important to focus on the contributions that seniors still have to offer to our communities. We need to view seniors from a strength-based perspective, appreciating the wisdom and experience that they can offer. Many seniors continue to thrive into their golden years. Family and Children’s Association, a leading health and human services nonprofit on Long Island, has over 150 senior volunteers enhancing the lives of frail and vulnerable seniors in the community. They are friendly visitors, ombudsmen, financial and health counselors. They are retired professionals and vital members of the community that want to keep making a difference, growing and thriving. Programs across the country are continually emerging to combat this issue. Many of these programs provide a link for seniors to access community services such as mental health counseling, medical treatment, and financial counseling. Case managers, mental health counselors, and physicians can build trusting relationships and are often the first step in linking seniors to socialization programs. FCA rolled out their Friendly Visitor Program in 2015. Dedicated FCA Case Managers working for the EISEP program (funded by NYSOFA and Nassau County OFA) identified the need for home visits that were strictly social in nature to enhance connections to the community and reduce isolation. The program is made possible by a grant from the Greentree Foundation. Personal connection is crucial for seniors who are used to spending days if not weeks alone. It is vital for a program to offer visits with seniors that provide stimulation and give renewed purpose to their lives. FCA’s Friendly Visitor Program offers volunteers an opportunity to provide home visits weekly to isolated, frail seniors living in the community. FCA friendly visitor volunteers have shared that this experience has enhanced their own lives and is equally rewarding for client and volunteer. Volunteers have the opportunity to share common interests which may include music, reading, a love of history, politics, cards, sharing stories, etc. Special attention is paid to matching seniors and volunteers who share interests and live geographically near one another.
The first training session for volunteer friendly visitors was held on Wednesday August 9th. A comprehensive friendly visitor training program was developed by the supervisory staff and program coordinator. Volunteers were educated on their responsibilities, emergency procedures, basic tips/ “Do’s” and “Don’ts” that address boundaries and program restrictions, the art of listening, overview of senior needs and sensitivity training, conversation starters, how to recognize warning signs, signs you may be too involved. Volunteers were able to ask questions and decide if they still wanted to participate. It was emphasized that the commitment would be for one year, one hour per week. An overview of FCA senior services was given. The volunteers were welcomed as valuable members of our senior service provider team. It was impressed upon them that they were not out there alone and they would be working with the case managers and other FCA senior support service teams to connect the client with help, beyond the socialization they provided, if needed. Twenty-three volunteers were trained that day. Volunteers were thoroughly vetted; background checks were completed references were contacted.
When the FCA Friendly Visitor program began, it successfully created 23 matches between frail and isolated homebound seniors and dedicated volunteers. The volunteers were an eclectic group of retired seniors, working adults, stay at home moms and even a college student. The connections that blossomed were heartwarming. The volunteers were surprised at the strong bonds that developed and the program appeared to enhance the lives of the volunteers as well as the seniors. One female volunteer, a mother of teenagers, was matched with a gentleman who is homebound, a man confined to wheelchair with limited family and community supports. He initially told the coordinator that he wanted a “more mature” volunteer. The volunteer was not deterred and still wanted to meet the senior. A strong connection formed. Both volunteer and senior cannot imagine not being a part of each other’s lives. The volunteer brought her son to visit and he was able to connect the senior’s computer and help improve his knowledge and technology skills. Another very special connection comes from a law student at Hofstra and her senior that she visits. She sent an email saying “I just wanted to extend a huge thank you to you because without you, this experience wouldn’t happen. The last few months have been so rewarding and so special.” She then goes on to speak about the fact that even though they don’t do much together except watch The Price is Right and talk about his family, she feels that Mr. L really looks forward to her visits. The following email from a Friendly Visitor is an example of the impact this program is having:
Hi Tami, I’m so pleased to report I’ve been visiting regularly with Mary on Sunday evenings after my dinner with my 89 year old Uncle who is a Parish Priest. After our dinner, Father Zachary loves his Carvel sherbet so we stop and pick it up for him. Mary loves her low-fat vanilla yogurt, and I always bring to her, so it works out perfectly. I love watching her enjoy the yogurt and finishing every last drop. It seems Sunday evenings are a good time because she is in hospice, but has no aide at that time and is often alone then and welcomes the company. I love my visits with Mary. Her stories are amazing. Her memory regarding all of her family member’s ages, schooling, careers, children’s ages and birthdays are amazing. Especially because she had 7 children and now there are many grand and great- grandchildren. One time she took my hands in hers and said to me, “I’m glad you’re my friend because at my age I don’t have any friends, they’re all gone!” Funny I never thought of that and that is another reason why this program is so important. The best thing is she hugs me every time and tells me she loves me. Well I love her too. You’ve matched us well and I thank you. Have a wonderful day and many blessings for all you do. Eileen
FCA’s volunteers visit with homebound seniors on a weekly basis and report loving the connections they have made. One friendly visitor said, “He was so excited when I walked in today, his whole face lit up and it was so rewarding.” The seniors look forward to their time with the volunteers. Some of them do crossword puzzles together, share holiday traditions, and listen to music or just chat. The senior’s only complaint is that the hour goes by too quickly. This is a program that has changed the lives of many Nassau County (Long Island) seniors. As one senior put it, “I wouldn’t trade her for anything. Couldn’t ask for more.” A very smart person once told me, the senior might forget what you told them, they might forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel. Program training and meetings to support the efforts of the volunteers are held quarterly. During the last meeting, volunteers came together to share stories, discuss concerns and issues and brainstorm ideas. The volunteers were also given a training in disaster preparedness the opportunity to bring disaster kits to their homebound senior. Volunteers assisted seniors in completing the vial of life medical forms, helping to formulate an emergency plan and post-disaster emergency numbers. Through a partnership with Empower, Assist & Care (EAC), emergency shelf stable food packages were also delivered to the seniors. During the next training we will be focusing on recognizing financial exploitation and educating seniors on being alert to scams and how to protect themselves. Although the friendly visitor volunteer is providing much needed socialization, with weekly visits they also become the eyes and ears for the case manager and families that live far away. They are trained to recognize warning signs and have the support of the FCA team to act when needed. There have been friendly visitors that have alerted the case manager to changes in the client’s functioning and asked the case manager to make a home visit. Home care service hours were increased as a result. Friendly visitor volunteers have proven to be strong advocates. In an age where people are connected more easily to friends and loved ones all over the world with a click of a mouse, studies reveal that human beings are lonelier than ever. Loss and isolation can negatively affect an older adult’s physical health and can contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression. The addition of the Friendly Visiting Program to Family and Children’s Association’s comprehensive senior service division enhances our ability to respond to the need of seniors for companionship and reduce the negative effects of isolation and loneliness. As a person ages, it is natural for their support circle to narrow. Connections that older adults have to others through services and community resources provide a safety net that helps them remain safely in their homes and participate in their community. FCA believes that it is not enough to connect seniors with services and resources; our goal is to have an impact on improving the overall quality of the lives of Long Island’s seniors. Reducing loneliness for isolated seniors and offering opportunities to connect with a friendly volunteer are vital to their overall wellbeing and give older adults a sense of value and purpose further contributing to security and happiness.
If you or someone you care about would benefit from a weekly visit, or you would like to volunteer to become a friendly visitor, please contact: Jessica DiCarlo, firstname.lastname@example.org or call (516) 292-1300.