Healthy Tuesday: Just one half hour visit or phone call a week can be a lifeline for the lonely | TheUnion.com

Healthy Tuesday: Just one half hour visit or phone call a week can be a lifeline for the lonely

Volunteer Andy Gonzalez talks to a participant in the Phone Reassurance Program. More than 40 homebound seniors and people with disabilities are waiting to be matched with "Friendly Visitors" or phone friends. More volunteers are needed.

More than 40 Nevada County homebound seniors and people with disabilities are on a waiting list with one simple request: a weekly visit or phone call from a community volunteer.

Since the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program of Nevada County lost its funding in December, area nonprofits, social workers and county government officials have been scrambling to fill the gap left by the defunct agency, which in the past recruited more than 400 volunteers annually and contributed thousands of hours of community service.

The Friendly Visitor and Telephone Reassurance programs have since been taken over by Grass Valley-based FREED Center for Independent Living, a disability and aging resource center that is charged with providing a broad range of services to residents of a five county area comprised of Nevada, Sierra, Yuba, Sutter and Colusa counties. Challenged with a limited amount of resources to recruit volunteers, FREED counselor and services coordinator Maureen Gerecke says the need is now greater than ever.

"These are seniors and people with disabilities who are isolated in their homes and need socialization," she said. "It's a preventive program for depression, anxiety and suicide prevention — it's been very successful. The personal contact has been much more effective than anything else."

Currently there are 34 "matches" of volunteers paired with participants, with more than 40 still in need. Volunteers have the option of signing up for routine home visits or regular phone calls, with a required minimum of one hour a week. Scheduling is often easy, as participants are almost always home.

Volunteers meet once a month to share experiences, support one another and take part in trainings that often focus on topics such as dementia, depression, anxiety and suicide prevention. If a participant passes away, grief support for the volunteer is available. Participants are most often referred to the program by doctors, outreach nurses, neighbors or family members. Some call to request a Friendly Visitor on their own behalf.

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"The Friendly Visitor program is a two-way street," said volunteer Shanti Emerson. "Both the visitor and the one being visited get a new caring friend."

Training is provided prior to being matched with a participant, as well as information on local resources. Volunteers often serve as the "eyes and ears" of a home-bound individual, whose health may be fragile. A typical scenario, said Gerecke, is an elder who has lost a spouse and wants to remain in his or her family home. Often family members do not live in the area and friends have passed away, leaving little or no support systems in place.

"Many volunteers fall in love with the participants and end up spending much more time with them," said Gerecke. "Some take them out for coffee or lunch, or just sit and watch a movie with them at home. Many end up calling them friends. It's really sad when I interview prospective participants — some don't have anyone to list as an emergency contact. Or they'll list the outreach nurse."

"I am a fairly young person to have been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, which has changed my life 180 degrees," said Phone Reassurance volunteer Andy Gonzalez. "I have learned that when I serve others, I'm 100 percent better when it comes to my feelings and emotions."

According to Gerecke, 100 percent of the polled participants in the Friendly Visitor and Phone Reassurance programs indicated they are "happier since participating in the program and feel less lonely."

Some participants are so lonely that the joy of a visit is palpable, she added, and volunteers gain the satisfaction of knowing they are having a profound impact on a person's life.

"Over the last six years of volunteering with the Friendly Visitor program I have found a deep, familial friendship with the woman I was paired with," said volunteer Rob Totoonchie. "We are some 40 years apart in age and I have to admit, I get as much mental and emotional nourishment from her as she does from me. I am forever grateful to the FREED program for giving me the opportunity to reach out and support someone that not only needs community and support, but has so much to offer at the same time."

Emerson is a member of The Union's Editorial Board.

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.

To learn more about volunteering for the Friendly Visitor or Phone Reassurance program, email Maureen Gerecke at Maureen@FREED.org or call 530-477-3333, ext. 210.