Volunteers provide assurance, friendship for homebound seniors
I Israel Shmookler is a World War II veteran who fought in the Russian army. He is now in his late 80s, has limited vision, and has difficulty getting out into the community by himself. But his life is a little easier and more enjoyable, thanks to his participation in the Friendly Visitor Program at the Amherst Center for Senior Services. Through the program, he made a new friend in volunteer Carol Hensel.
“Carol brings to my house optimism and information, and different political affiliations make it especially interesting. We never agree on anything,” said Shmookler, who is conservative. “It gives a lot of thoughts to the old mind. I love her very much, despite her mistaken political affiliations.”
Hensel says that for her, volunteering in this program was an obvious thing to do.
“I do other volunteer work here,” she explained. “This made sense. I’ve seen a lot of people who are isolated and could use company.”
She and Shmookler quickly bonded over their mutual interests in politics and history. Hensel comes to his home every other week, and they have even become friends outside of the program. Hensel helps him choose audio books from the library and even helped him vote, though Shmookler joked he was a little nervous about allowing a Democrat to fill out his ballot.
“We ’ve become friends,” she said simply.
The Friendly Visitor Program through the Amherst Senior Center is currently small, with about five volunteers, but Senior Center social worker Deborah Zimmerman and social work intern Erin Murphy are trying to expand the program. Any senior can receive visits, but anyone from the community can volunteer.
“Debbie put a lot of her work and ability to make the program nice and good. I told her, ‘It will not work, like beating a dead horse.’ But it works,” Shmookler said. “To adjust to a new environment, it takes time. This program is very helpful.”
The Senior Center also runs a Telephone Assurance Program, which was developed by the Red Cross. TAP volunteer Kate Dorney currently calls four people on a regular basis. In some cases, Dorney will talk with them for an hour or two. In other cases, she simply checks in with them to make sure that everything is all right. And there have been occasions when things weren’t all right. Dorney helped one of her clients receive Meals on Wheels after discovering that she was living off ginger ale and crackers.
“They’re friends. I worry about them. I can forget what I’m stewing about because their problems are worse than mine,” Dorney said. This is initially why Dorney became involved in TA P.
“I started getting busy at the center after my husband passed away. I knew I had to get out of the house,” Dorney recalled. She says that being a TAP volunteer is an easy way to help others.
“You don’t even have to leave your home. If you’re bored one afternoon, you can just pick up the phone,” she said.
The TAP program is coordinated by Senior Center volunteer coordinator Jodi Kwarta. As with the Friendly Visitor Program, anyone from the community can volunteer. Kwarta estimates that around 15 volunteers call 20 people to chat and to check on their well-being.
“I think it takes a very special volunteer to do this,” Kwarta said. “There’s a real sense of personal responsibility with the volunteers.”
All of those involved with the program say the initial contact is much less awkward than one might expect, despite the fact that the two parties know little about each other and that mutual availability often drives the matches more than common interests.
“I’m a naturally curious person,’ said Hensel. “You go in there not knowing who you’ll see, but [Shmookler and I are] both political, we both like history.” Shmookler said he took the advice of the late writer Dale Carnegie (“How to Win Friends and Influence People”) and asked lots of questions to get to know Hensel. Volunteers and clients are provided with a bit of information about one another, and the programs themselves also provide advice on building a rapport.
All involved in the program agree that there’s a real need for its services, a need which will only grow. For Dorney, her involvement is personal.
“My one aunt was found dead in her apartment. You realize someone’s got to look out for these people,” she said.
“There’s an enormous pool of old people, and it’s growing and growing. Society should be prepared to deal with it,” Shmookler said.
“My thing has always been, ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’” said Hensel. “Where will someone be when it’s my time?”
If you are interested in helping with the TAP or Friendly Visitor Programs, or if you or someone you know could benefit from them, contact Deb Zimmerman at 636-3055, ext. 3130.