In the rugged lumber and farming country of northeast Oregon, many longtime residents live on farms 20 or more miles from the nearest town. The harsh climate and isolation make life less than easy for most, and in many cases sons and daughters have moved away from the area with their families because of the ebbing economy.
''The people who live here tend to be independent and self-sufficient. They don't want a lot of interference in their lives,'' says the Rev. Steve Kliewer of La Grande, Ore. Yet if they need their driveway plowed after a blizzard or could use help with seasonal tasks such as putting up storm windows, older people without immediate access to nearby relatives or neighbors have few social service agencies in the area to turn to.
Assistance with everyday tasks is a pressing need for older people in northeast Oregon, as elsewhere, but this need is not confined to remote, rural areas. Many senior citizens living alone or with relatives can often use help with shopping, transportation, or even writing a letter.
Recognizing the widespread need for in-home care and other services, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton, N.J., and the National Interfaith Coalition on Aging initiated a large-scale national grant program designed to enlist volunteers from church congregations and communities to assist older people wishing to live at home rather than in a nursing home.
The Interfaith Volunteer Caregivers Program, as it's called, met with an enormous response from ecumenical organizations across the United States. After announcing the program last year, the foundation received nearly a thousand letters and 345 applications for the grant money.
This month, 25 coalitions of churches and synagogues were announced as recipients. The coalitions, representing seven rural, 10 suburban, and eight urban areas across the country, will each receive up to $150,000 for a three-year period, totaling $3.8 million in funds.
The money will be used primarily to establish ongoing volunteer training programs set up by each individual coalition. Since the areas served by the grant are so diverse, each group designed a program to meet the specific needs of its older population. Most of the programs are slated to begin sometime this spring.
''The grant allowed us to try to develop something that would fit our unique circumstances,'' says Mr. Kliewer of the Northeast Oregon Caregivers, one of the coalitions receiving funds from the foundation.
In Mobile, Ala., volunteers from several churches and synagogues citywide will make regular visits to the homes of older people, will help with housework or home repair, cook meals, provide escort services, give telephone reassurance, and perform other services. ''When we heard about the grant possibility, we pulled together people from the private and public sectors and decided we wanted to move with this,'' says the Rev. Fred Toland Jr. of the Area Interfaith Disaster Service Inc. in Mobile. ''We have an awful lot of people who need these services.''
In Boston, Joanne Potter, development coordinator of the Boston Interfaith coalition, says more than 20 churches and synagogues are already involved in the program: ''I was amazed at the response (from church leaders). The enthusiasm is really astonishing.''
The Boston home-assistance program will focus on one-to-one volunteer assistance, outreach to elder residents in public housing, and encouraging Boston's older members to contribute their skills in volunteer activities.
''So often professional home-care services aren't quite enough to help an older person live safely and happily,'' says Ms. Potter. ''Whether it is a walk around the block, a trip to a favorite bookstore, or visits to friends, these are the things that really make them feel like they are living a full life and are not just confined.''