Will the face of compassion be yours?

A few years ago, when a church in New York appealed for volunteers to visit older people living alone, a young lawyer I know responded. Once a week, he went to the apartment of an elderly man. Sometimes they played chess. Other times they simply talked.

Whatever the activity, their time together lifted the older man's spirits, offering an antidote to loneliness and a connection with the outside world. The benefits were mutual. As the volunteer, a father of three, told me after returning from one visit, "It's a good feeling to know you're helping someone."

Small acts of kindness like these are part of what President Bush had in mind in one partof his State of the Union address last week. Early in the speech, he noted the importance of reaching out to those in need - visiting prisoners, sheltering battered women, and "bringing companionship to lonely seniors."

That brief comment has been largely forgotten amid concern about impending war and a slumping economy. But in calling for "acts of compassion," Mr. Bush summed up the urgent need to help others, including "lonely seniors."

Loneliness can stalk anyone - young, old, rich, poor: a child coming home to an empty house after school, a teenager yearning to be accepted in a high school social circle, a soldier shipping out to a faraway war zone, a widow or widower cooking for one every evening.

Yet loneliness remains largely invisible. "Nobody wants to admit 'I'm lonely,' " says Marty Guerin, executive director of Little Brothers - Friends of the Elderly in Boston, a national group working to relieve isolation and loneliness among older people. "By the time they get to the point of saying they're lonely, it's serious."

Among the nation's 1.6 million nursing home residents, isolation can loom large. Many lack regular visitors, says Debra Mitchell of the National Citizens Coalition for Nursing Home Reform in Washington. Some have no family, or their family lives far away and can only visit infrequently. Retired people living alone in their own homes may face the same challenge.

How slowly clocks must tick when there is no meaningful contact with another person to break up the day and stimulate thought.

The Chicago chapter of Little Brothers - Friends of the Elderly reports that almost half of the city's residents over 65 have no help from families.Multiply those numbers by cities and towns across the country and the need for caring and support becomes huge.

Yet recruiting volunteers can be a challenge. "People have big hearts," Mrs. Guerin says. "They just can't always find time to do it. It takes a special kind of person to make room in their lives for someone who's alone."

Although there is no typical volunteer, Guerin finds that some people want to start giving back when they reach their 30s and 40s. Some also want their children to learn early the importance of giving to others.

A smile, a pat on the shoulder, a squeeze of the hand, an encouraging word - these small gestures can assuage loneliness and offer comfort and hope to those in every stage of life. But as a new austerity forces federal and state governments to slash budgets, the questions hanging in the wintry air are these: How many social-service programs, including those that bring companionship to "lonely seniors," can be cut without harming those in need? And how many caring people with big hearts will step forward, one by one, to fill the gaps?

Guerin is encouraged by a growing public awareness of the need for connections. For those who do reach out, rewards can be great, as the New York lawyer and countless others can attest. As Guerin says of the work her group does, "We are uncovering diamonds. The elders we meet are just wonderful."

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