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Independent, but alone

Volunteers are setting out to ease an invisible – and growing – problem among seniors: isolation.

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 21, 2006

Ollie Terry remembers earlier decades of her life when days never seemed long enough. She had two children to rear, a paycheck to earn, and then two grandsons to help her daughter raise.

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But those responsibilities ended long ago. Now, after living by herself for 22 years, the clock ticks slowly. Days can seem long – unless they happen to be days when Sharon Gamache visits or calls. For 14 years, Ms. Gamache has been a mainstay in Ms. Terry's life, offering companionship and easing loneliness as a volunteer for Little Brothers – Friends of the Elderly.

"It's a blessing," says Terry of Boston. "I'm not able to get out like I used to. She brings me beautiful flowers, and we talk about different things."

Terry is one of more than 10 million Americans age 65 or older who live alone, according to the Census Bureau. Although the majority remain independent and active, as longevity increases, a growing number find that independence can have a downside: isolation.

"It is a societal issue," says Larry Minnix, CEO of the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging in Washington, D.C. "Loneliness is more of a pervasive problem than we realize, especially among the vulnerable elderly."

As one way of easing that loneliness, an informal network of "friendly visiting" programs is springing up around the country. Bearing names such as Befrienders and Caring Neighbors, they match each older individual with a volunteer, hoping to establish a long-term relationship. Despite the growing need, most groups operate on shoestring budgets and with minimal staffing.

"There are always more people than we can begin to think about serving," says Marty Guerin, executive director of Little Brothers – Friends of the Elderly in Jamaica Plain, Mass.

Some isolated older people have children or relatives, but they live at a distance or rarely visit. Others never married or had children, or they've outlived their children.

In Terry's case, her two grandsons are very attentive. But over the years, Gamache has given her other kinds of sociability – picnics, birthday dinners, and plays.

For older people without such connections, loneliness can be invisible. Mr. Minnix tells of one solitary woman who grew isolated in her suburban neighborhood. "She put a small table mirror on her kitchen table to look at for companionship while she was eating," he says.

Some volunteers meet practical needs. Every other Sunday, Steve and Holly Clark of Norwood, N.J., drive 45 minutes to deliver groceries to a 94-year-old woman who lives alone in a house that's been her home for 50 years.

Although the shopping list is short – about 15 items – the visits, arranged by an agency called HomeCare Options, carry a larger purpose. "It's an opportunity for her to have human contact, have people to converse with," says Mr. Clark, a public relations executive. "When you don't have a support group of children, siblings, or a spouse, you become invisible."

The couple's 14-year-old son, Marty, goes along. "She's crazy about him," Clark says. "I think he feels a sense of pride that he's helping someone. She's so excited when we get there. She knows she can count on us every other week. You feel like you're making a difference."

The need to keep seniors connected goes beyond one-on-one efforts. The national goal, Minnix says, must be to create "a network of caring and outreach in neighborhoods where nobody's forgotten."

That includes making more subsidized housing available for the elderly. "There are nine people on a waiting list for every subsidized housing unit for the elderly in America," he says.

Other forms of congregative living include continuing-care retirement communities and assisted-living facilities. Although these provide companionship and activities, some residents yearn for more ties.

At Wyndemere Senior Living Campus in Wheaton, Ill., a pen-pal program links 20 residents with fifth-graders at a local middle school. During the school year, students and residents exchange letters, sharing experiences and personal interests. In January, students visit Wyndemere and meet their pen pals. At the end of the year, residents visit the students' classrooms. Some relationships continue for years.

"It's a whole new world for our residents," says Randalynn Kaye, marketing director. "They feel more up to date, more in tune with what's happening in the world, and not isolated in their generation. Not everyone here has a lot of family, or family close by. They're looking for interaction, looking for some meaningful sharing of what their life experience was."