Giving the Gift of Friendship

Volunteers remedy elders' loneliness with visits and love

If holiday cheer had a face, it just might look like Betty Farley's. Today her friend Paul Goldberg has come to her apartment bearing flowers and gifts.

Ms. Farley beams and clasps her hands as Mr. Goldberg puts the flowers in water and the gifts under her mini Christmas tree.

But the real gift here is the gift of friendship.

Goldberg met Farley seven years ago through "Little Brothers - Friends of the Elderly." The nonprofit organization provides friendship to elders who are alone, isolated, and home-bound.

Back in 1987, Farley moved to Boston from New York to be near her son. But he died soon after she relocated. "He left me with nobody," recalls Farley, who is now in her early 90s. "Then Little Brothers adopted me."

Volunteers like Goldberg live out song lyrics such as "You've Got a Friend" and "Lean on Me." They spend time with their "old friends," as they are called, by taking them out to eat or to museums and baseball games, as well as helping them with occasional shopping and escorting them to appointments.

Little Brothers helps thousands of elders in eight countries. United States affiliates include Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Houghton, Mich. (where many rural elderly live). Seniors are often referred by social services.

Little Brothers was founded in 1946 in Paris by Armand Marquiset, a French nobleman. He began bringing food, flowers, and friendship to poor and isolated elderly who had lost their families in World War II. "I believe in love," he said. "It is the only possible solution. It is the only answer." The greatest poverty, he said, "is the poverty of love."

The program came to Chicago in 1959, and then branched out. Today, Little Brothers serves nearly 6,000 elderly with support from individuals, corporations, and foundations.

"It's a strong program," says Marilyn Hennessy, director of the Retirement Research Foundation in Chicago. "They are unique in what they do because their single mission is to be there for older people." Her foundation contributes funds to Little Brothers. "They're different than social services, in that they don't bring particular professional services," she continues. Elders are not "clients," she says. "They are good friends."

"Friends of the Elderly" take great pride in the motto: "flowers before bread." It underscores their philosophy that joy and love, dignity and beauty in life are as basic as physical needs.

"Becoming family: It's as undramatic as that and as dramatic as that," says Martha Guerin, executive director of Little Brothers in Boston. "The holidays are a particularly acute time for loneliness. This time of year we make an extra effort to reach out."

The Boston affiliate has some 200 "regulars" and 600 more "old friends" who receive dinners and visits during the holidays. "It's not just a food drop off, it's the other piece - the human connection that reaches out and reminds people 'you count,' " Ms. Guerin says. Affiliates hold other events during the year, such as Mothers' Day lunches and picnics.

AT a time when the US population is growing older and individuals are living longer, Little Brothers and organizations like it will become increasingly needed.

The number of older Americans - persons 65 years or older - was 32.8 million in 1993, about 12.7 percent of the US population. By 2030, older Americans are expected to number 70 million - more than double the number in 1990 - and represent 20 percent of the population.

"The need is always going to vastly exceed what we can meet," says national director Roger Nash. "Our hope is that through our example we will influence others to do what we do, in the spirit of what we do." Growing research corroborates Little Brothers' belief that the loving support of others helps to sustain physical and mental well-being.

"It gets lonesome," living by yourself, Farley says. "You try to get used to it, but it doesn't work." At the moment, however, Farley and Goldberg are both smiling as they reminisce about good times: driving to New York City to visit friends; going to baseball games; Thanksgivings with Goldberg's family. "I had no idea it would evolve into such a longtime friendship," says Goldberg, who manages a social-services organization.

"I'm thankful, and I've enjoyed every minute," Farley says. She points out several photos of her and Goldberg; one shows her at his wedding with his wife, Julie. "Betty is very much a part of my family," Goldberg says. "Not only is she a pleasant and personable person, she really has a zest for life. She has great stories to tell." Farley recalls the Harlem renaissance of the 1920s and her work on the 20th Century Limited train from New York to Chicago.

"Whenever little things distress and worry me, I think of Betty and the travails she's gone through, and it helps me center myself," Goldberg says. His words illustrate an important point: Very often volunteers find they receive more than they give through their friendships.

*Little Brothers - Friends of the Elderly, 1603 S. Michigan Ave., Suite 502, Chicago, Ill., 60616.

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