A Banner Year to Visit the Elderly?

National campaign drapes a colorful message above nursing-home doors: Come say hi

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The first time Jeanne Cosgrove drove past the West Roxbury Manor Nursing Home near Boston, she noticed a large blue banner above the front door. Its message - "Love Is Ageless. Visit Us" - startled her.

"I was very moved by the banner," Ms. Cosgrove recalls. "It created this feeling inside me that I wanted to do something."

Last month Cosgrove, an electrologist in Brookline, Mass., fulfilled that wish. Together with three other Boston businesswomen, she is spearheading a national project with an ambitious goal: to hang banners like this at 5,000 nursing homes by the end of February.

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"We want to connect the generations and get people of all ages involved with each other," Cosgrove explains. "We also want to increase people's appreciation for the elderly."

Most of the nation's 1.7 million nursing-home residents do not receive regular visitors, according to the National Citizens Coalition for Nursing Home Reform in Washington. In a mobile society, many residents no longer have adult children living nearby. Others have no relatives at all and must rely on friends or outsiders for companionship and support.

"It's absolutely crucial that people not be isolated from their communities just because they've grown old," says Dave Kyllo, a spokesman for the American Health Care Association in Washington.

The banner that caught Cosgrove's eye originally served as the theme for National Nursing Home Week, sponsored by Mr. Kyllo's organization. In the seven years that it has been hanging in front of West Roxbury Manor, it has attracted a variety of visitors.

"People come in and say, 'What can I do?'" explains Susan Jessup, the administrator. "They usually tell us what their special talents are." One man played the piano. Another time, a couple with two children spent a Saturday afternoon talking with some of the home's 76 residents. Says Ms. Jessup, "Whenever you mix children and the elderly together, you can't lose. Something special always happens."

She adds, "I don't think people realize what a contribution they're making to their community when they volunteer in a nursing home and stop in for a visit." The banner has also attracted "some very good applicants for jobs," she notes.

One volunteer who was drawn by the banner is Norma Delvalle of Hyde Park, Mass. For several months she has spent one evening a week, and sometimes Sunday mornings, talking to residents, serving beverages, and playing games.

"It makes me feel good," says Ms. Delvalle, a business analyst for Blue Cross. "Some of them have family, but others might not get any visits. And sometimes people just like to speak with someone other than their own family. When I don't go, they say, 'Where's that girl who always comes?' "

Charles Jacob of West Roxbury, another volunteer, spends an hour a week reading books to residents. He even brings his dog. "She goes around mooching for cookies while I read," says Mr. Jacob, a retired teacher.

For Charles Allen, who moved into West Roxbury Manor last November, visits from people like Cosgrove and Sue Smart, one of the project partners, brighten his day. Mr. Allen, a retired Army mechanic enjoys talking about everything from politics and sports to religion and photography, and misses the companionship of the men he calls "my VFW friends."

"I used to talk all the time," he says with a laugh. "I like people to come in and talk."

Cosgrove recalls the first time she and Ms. Smart visited Allen and others. "We were totally energized when we went that day and spent time with residents," she says. "You could tell it was so mutual. I felt very uplifted. When we were shaking hands as we were leaving, that handshake seemed to take years off them. The radiance in their faces was just a very noticeable benefit for both of us."

Adds Ms. Smart, who is a senior manager at Price Waterhouse in Boston, "If you take time to actually talk to these people, you discover that they've had rich and wonderful lives, and are very interesting."

Already more than 300 nursing homes across the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii, have requested banners. Two others in Australia are also participating. Cosgrove's group has raised more than $20,000, most of it in corporate funds. They expect to need $60,000. Although banners are free to nursing homes, some facilities have sent donations in appreciation for the project. In the next two weeks, newsletters and other mailings about the banners will reach 8,000 nursing homes.

Cosgrove and Smart anticipate other benefits that extend beyond nursing homes. Explains Smart, "We're hoping they will encourage people not only to visit people in nursing homes, but also to think about visiting elderly relatives in their families or other people who are isolated." Cosgrove adds, "If it makes just a little bit of difference in this country, it will be worth it."

* For further information, call 617- 469-4092 or email: ageless617@aol.com

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