A newly reorganized program at the Jefferson Area Board for Aging connects seniors with volunteers who visit them in their homes. The program, which has been run informally for several years, has a new name — Neighbor-to-Neighbor.
The program includes training and in-service opportunities for volunteers to meet with one another and share their experiences. Currently, 23 volunteers and 25 seniors are participating, according to Carleigh Showalter, JABA’s volunteer coordinator.
“We started the program, simply, to meet community need,” said Showalter. “The Neighbor-to-Neighbor program is one of many that supports JABA’s mission to establish a sustainable community for healthy aging.”
A Neighbor-to-Neighbor volunteer might help meet one or all of the following program goals: reduce social isolation; preserve dignity, value and self-worth; provide regular wellness checks; and help a senior to age in place.
Volunteer opportunities include social visits, assisting with shopping duties and providing transportation to appointments or for errands.
The friendships between the seniors and the volunteers may vary, but the role the visitors play in the senior’s life is vital, organizers say.
“Friendly visitors enter into a relationship with a senior who may have little or no other social support in the community,” said Showalter. “They become a best friend and also a reassurance for the senior by being able to observe and report any significant changes over the course of their visits that concern them.”
Longtime volunteer Hal Clark has developed many friendships like these during his time volunteering at JABA. Clark has served as both an ombudsman and as a friendly visitor. He understands the importance of the role volunteers play in the lives of the seniors by providing a listening ear and a genuine interest in the senior’s well-being.
“It’s a serious commitment,” said Clark. “I see it as a grave responsibility. These guys have come to depend on me and I’ve become their best friend in many cases.”
Clark also has had to help seniors through difficult circumstances, such as losing the ability to drive. He has guided them through the process of understanding those changes.
“A big part of it is encouraging that person, making them feel able,” Clark said. “Talk up the facilities they still have.”
“It doesn’t take too long talking to somebody to find out what has brought them joy and happiness in their life. You can always remind them of these experiences to help them remember that they’ve had a good life. As they age and the end starts to get closer, that’s when it’s more important to talk about those kinds of things.”
According to one study by psychologists at Brigham Young University, “people who were socially isolated, lonely or living alone had about a 30 percent higher chance of dying during a given study period than those who had regular social contact.”
Volunteers in the Neighbor-to-Neighbor program help to fulfill seniors’ need for socializing. Their visits allow the elderly to not just age in place, but age in community with people who care about them.
“What you can become is their best contact with the outside world,” Clark said. “They can become very housebound, especially if they live alone. A friendly visitor can go a long way to breeching that isolation and loneliness. I think that’s one of the reasons it can be very rewarding.”
Showalter said she is always looking for volunteers for the program.
“We look for people who are selfless, compassionate, good active listeners and who can set boundaries,” she said. “Our lives are busy. We don’t always have the time, but do you have the desire to make time to help a neighbor?”
Clark said he thinks the Neighbor-to-Neighbor program is a great fit for his introverted personality.
“It suits me; I really like working with people one-on-one,” he said. “I think that elderly people have a wisdom that you can only get by having a long life experience. I love learning their stories and getting to appreciate these people, these characters.”
Anyone interested in becoming a Neighbor-to-Neighbor volunteer or having a volunteer visit a loved one may call JABA at 817-5222 to learn more.