Friendly Visitors: The Cure to Isolation
Programs Provide Companions for Seniors Far from Friends, Family
Imagine being blind and a senior living alone in Los Angeles, far from friends and family. This was the life of a woman we'll call Sarah. It could have been desolate, but instead of being trapped in isolation and loneliness, Sarah was a familiar sight at the posh shops on Rodeo Drive. Once a week, she and her friend would browse the racks; her friend would put an expensive shoe in Sarah's hands and describe the shoe in great detail. Then they would head to an upscale department store for their weekly coffee date.
Was Sarah's companion a wealthy retiree? A longtime chum? No, she was a volunteer from a local friendly visitors program.
Such mutually rewarding bonds form through the programs all over the country. Institutions such as senior centers, social service organizations, places of worship and private agencies coordinate friendly visitor programs to meet the social needs of seniors who otherwise would be isolated. They provide companionship for people who have no family or friends nearby - thus solving a universal problem for long-distance caregivers who cannot visit regularly and check on seniors' welfare themselves.
Many programs also offer friendly visitors for nursing home residents with no friends or family close by. This provides not only social contact but also an extra set of eyes to check welfare and make sure the residents' needs are being met.
Eligibility varies from program to program. However, the following criteria are common:
Seniors must be 60 or older.
They must be isolated. Little Brothers - Friends of the Elderly, a national nonprofit organization based in Chicago and committed to relieving isolation and loneliness among the elderly, defines "isolated" as having no more than one social visit per month. Because of the overwhelming demand for friendly visitors, most programs require that the senior have no friends or family close by.
They should have the ability to connect with others. Bitter, abusive or confused seniors won't be able to connect in friendship with the volunteers. Volunteers end up feeling disappointed and quit. Thus, the program loses a valuable asset and the senior will be left with a disappointing relationship.
First and foremost, friendly visitors are meant to be companions and friends. Typically, a program provides weekly, one-on-one visits between a solitary senior and a volunteer. They can talk, play cards, go to lunch or do whatever strikes their fancy. The organizations strive to match seniors and volunteers with similar interests and backgrounds.
Volunteers visit seniors in a variety of settings, including the seniors' homes and elder care facilities. Know the mission and rules of the programs available to you. If the volunteer program is for companionship only, then it is inappropriate to ask the volunteer to perform household tasks or run errands.
Some friendly visitor programs send groups of volunteers to elder care facilities for holiday events. For example, Little Brothers - Friends of the Elderly in San Francisco enlarges the scope of its program during the holidays to include special visits with gifts and food.
Typically, agencies will screen volunteers and seniors for compatibility only. Be aware most organizations do not conduct security or criminal checks on volunteers, so it is important caregivers monitor the visits. Long-distance caregivers can monitor by calling seniors before visits or asking seniors to call them afterward. This gives seniors another opportunity for social contact while letting caregivers ensure nothing inappropriate occurred with friendly visitors.
It also may be helpful to remind seniors not to discuss financial matters with friendly visitors and to put valuables and confidential papers out of sight before home visits.
If a senior who needs one-on-one interaction does not meet the criteria for a friendly visitor program: