Independent, but alone
Volunteers are setting out to ease an invisible – and growing – problem among seniors: isolation.
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.
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."
That yearning extends to nursing homes. "When statistics say that something like 70 percent of nursing home residents don't have visitors, how do staff and volunteers make up that deficit?" Minnix asks. He calls it "the big challenge," but insists it is solvable. "There is no reason in this country why every older or disabled person who's isolated can't have a friend. There's plenty of friendship out there."
In addition to friendly visiting programs, Minnix sees adult day services as an emerging trend. Older people who live alone or reside with adult children who work all day can spend weekdays at centers that provide meals and activities.
"At home, it becomes very easy to sit in front of the television," says Merle Griff, chairwoman of the National Adult Day Services Association in Washington. "That becomes your world. It's easy to become more and more withdrawn."
By contrast, she says, center-based activities such as woodworking, crafts, modified golf, and beach-ball volleyball connect participants. "They're laughing and cheering each other on. They're having a good time. We see elders come into our centers and just blossom."
Ms. Griff tells of two women who have become best friends at a center. Both had been isolated and lonely. One speaks only Greek, the other only English. "They're with each other all day. I still don't understand how they communicate with each other, but it seems to work for them."
Most centers supply transportation, she says. Some even have beauty salons. The cost ranges from $40 to $80 a day, depending on the region.
As the need to relieve isolation grows more urgent, friendly visiting programs face a challenge. "It's becoming harder to get volunteers for programs like ours," Guerin says. "We emphasize building relationships. We want people to become friends. We ask for a year's commitment. Frequently it goes much longer than that."
Some people are happy to volunteer for the summer, she says. Baby boomers, she finds, are "very savvy" about time and often want parameters, with a specific end. Other people are struggling with their own family needs. Still others don't volunteer because they fear getting old, Guerin says. "It's like you're going to catch old age by being around older people, as opposed to understanding that we're all part of the same continuum, just at a different place in life."
Yet volunteers who do make a commitment remain loyal for years. "They're absolutely like family to these folks," Guerin says. "They just keep on going. It's phenomenal."
In Bozeman, Mont., Kristin Hueftle, a pre-med student, calls or visits Eva Price two or three times a month. "I gain insight from her, just listening to the stories she has to tell me from way before my time," Ms. Hueftle says. Those include Mrs. Price's experiences as a glacial geologist doing far-flung research projects.
Price, a widow for nearly 40 years, retired in 1980. "Kristin will take me to concerts on campus," she says. "Or she will take me for a drive. I'll say, 'Well, look, how about a pizza?' I enjoy it immensely. I like to keep up with what the young people are doing."
The two were matched by Befrienders, Inc. About 40 percent of the group's volunteers are students.
"The seniors are such a wealth of information and experience," says Karen Larsen, executive director. Many of the retirees they serve, like Price, moved to Bozeman to be near adult children. "They often know no one else but family, and the family is busy during the day," Ms. Larsen says. "Many of their friends have passed away or moved away for the same reason they did – to be near their kids."
These connections, wherever they occur, bring rewards for both parties.
"It's been a wonderful, rich experience with Ollie," says Gamache, who works for the National Fire Protection Association in Quincy, Mass. "People in that generation show such interest in the next generation. With their stories, their sense of humor, they have so much to give if people just take time to listen."
• For further information: Little Brothers – Friends of the Elderly, (312) 829-3055, or www.littlebrothers.org; Friendly Visiting Programs Directory (lists local programs) www.friendlyvisiting.org; National Adult Day Services Association, 800-558-5301, or www.nadsa.org