Program helps seniors who need a pal

ElderFriends seeks volunteers to visit folks who live alone

Published:

 
photoKiersten Ware

If you go

What: Volunteer training for ElderFriends. Registration required.

When: 5:30 to 8 p.m. May 7 and 17 and June 6.

Where: CDM Services, 2409 Broadway.

Cost: Free.

Info: 360-816-0927 or CDM Services.

A program to relieve isolation and loneliness among seniors who live alone will kick off in May in Clark County.

ElderFriends Inc., based out of the CDM Services office at 2409 Broadway, matches volunteers with isolated seniors 65 and older for weekly visits.

“These are seniors who are living alone and not in an institution,” said Kiersten Ware, the program’s founder. “They’re shut in or frail. The volunteer is paired with them much like a Big Brothers Big Sisters program. It’s just socialization. There are no chores or errands. It’s playing games or sewing together, cooking, maybe going for a walk.”

Ware worked with Vancouver’s CDM Services last summer to try to bring the program to Clark County but hadn’t been able to secure money to pay for an executive director to coordinate the program until now.

Instead of hiring an executive director, the program qualified for an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer who will serve as coordinator of the program.

AmeriCorps volunteer Paige Costigan was placed in the position April 23. Costigan, who worked as a home care worker before earning a bachelor’s degree in community health from New Mexico State University, will serve as coordinator for at least a year. AmeriCorps VISTA is a national service organization that serves Americans in poverty.

Operating costs for the program will be paid for

with grants from the Harvest Foundation ($10,000), Vancouver Rotary Foundation ($3,000), and Northwest Healthcare Inc. ($700), as well as other smaller contributions, Ware said.

The program matches people 65 and older who live alone with a volunteer who commits to visit the senior for an hour or two every week for at least a year. Volunteers also are required to participate in a two- to three-hour training and have a background check.

There are no income limitations for seniors to participate in the program. The only requirement for eligibility is to be 65 and living alone. Nearly 9 percent of Washington households are occupied by a senior who lives alone, according to the Census Bureau.

“A lot of socially isolated people don’t have the resources and the friendly visits they need to keep them healthy and happy,” Costigan said.

Social isolation increases the risk of several kinds of disease, including heart disease and Alzheimer’s, according to research published in 2007 in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

ElderFriends differs from existing services such as Meals on Wheels in that it focuses solely on isolated seniors’ emotional needs. Meals on Wheels has a social component, but its focus is on feeding homebound seniors.

“The (Meals on Wheels) volunteer usually chats with people for a little bit,” said Julie Piper Finley, communications and marketing director at Loaves & Fishes Centers. “Some people don’t want to chat. They just put their arm through the door and take their meal. For others, the volunteer may be the only person they see all day, so the volunteer might stay and chat or change a light bulb or move a chair.”

Loaves & Fishes Centers serves 89,000 meals to nearly 850 Clark County seniors each year.

There’s a need in Clark County and the larger Portland metro area for a program, like ElderFriends, that focuses on seniors’ emotional and social needs, Finley said.

“I think it’s a good idea,” Finley said. “For homebound seniors, it gives them someone else to visit with.”

Ware founded ElderFriends in 1996 in Seattle and later started another program in Richmond, Va.

“Right now, we are serving Clark County to start, but it’ll probably expand out to other counties as the year progresses,” Ware said. “The growth of the program in other locations in the U.S. usually starts in one county and then branches out. I would imagine here it would expand into Portland as well but wouldn’t expect that for a little while.”

The first training is from 5:30 to 8 p.m. May 7 with subsequent training at the same time May 17 and June 6. It covers program protocols, volunteer role and expectations, detecting abuse and neglect, accessing community resources, visiting skills and activities, and common elder health issues.

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://twitter.com/Col_Trends;http://facebook.com/ColTrends;paris.achen@columbian.com.