October 14, 2002
ElderFriends in need
by Bronwyn Wilson
Senior Staff Writer
Kiersten Seeger Ware decided to start an adopt-a-grandparent program after moving to the Seattle area seven years ago.
While living in San Francisco, she had participated in a project that promoted friendly visits to elders confined to their homes. Once settled in the Puget Sound region, she began searching for similar opportunities. "And there weren't any," she says.
She determined she would change that and organized a one-time event, recruiting volunteers to visit elderly shut-ins on Thanksgiving Day. The event was a success, filling a vacancy in the elderly population.
Afterward, she founded a program that would fill the need on an on-going basis.
Called ElderFriends, the non-profit, volunteer-based program provides companionship to isolated older adults.
"The idea of our program is to recruit, train and support community volunteers in an adopt-a-grandparent [project] with friendly visits," says Ware, adding that the program's goal is to help older adults remain independent and to avoid a life of isolation. "Our program is modeled after a number of successful friendly visiting projects throughout the country."
The age of elders participating in the program starts at 65 with the average age at 83. Most live alone without regular visits from family or friends.
"They're usually shut-in and there's a lot of fear attached with leaving their home," says Ware who has a master's degree in gerontology and certification in advanced aging from the University of Washington. According to Ware, studies show that there's a link between emotional well-being and physical well-being.
An on-going friendship, she says, promotes good health and spirit and enables elders to remain independent. Ware points out that the program screens out elders who have Alzheimer's or untreated depression.
"We take a lot of information in the application and referral process," she says. The program matches elders and volunteers with like preferences and takes smoking, allergies, even volunteers who want to bring their children along, into account.
Logistics remains at the top of the priority list for most volunteers. "If you can't get to your elder easily, it's not going to be a good fit," she says. Volunteers and their elder usually live within five miles of each other.
"But not as close as two miles," Ware adds, mentioning that a few of the program's volunteers and their elder live in Woodinville.
"We encourage the volunteers to do the visits in the elder's home and talk about their interests at first," says Ware. Once the volunteer and elder establish a mutual friendship, Ware says the visits can expand outside the home, such as a trip to a local restaurant for lunch.
For those who don't feel ready to make a yearlong pledge of two or more visits per month with weekly phone calls, but would like to offer an elderly citizen a friendly visit, Ware has a suggestion. She's currently recruiting volunteers for a one-day visit to an elder's home on Thanksgiving Day 2002.
Volunteers will brighten the elder's day with items donated by Northwest business such as a bouquet of colorful flowers from Ballard Blossom, fresh Odwalla juice, Dilettante chocolates and a turkey dinner provided by Ballard's Yankee Grill. The elders usually put the meal aside and wait to eat it until after the social call.
"They chit-chat and visit for at least an hour," says Ware, explaining the event works well for those who have wondered about volunteering and would like to try it for one day. "It's a great opportunity for people who have been wanting to volunteer and haven't made the commitment yet."
Volunteers for the one-time holiday event don't participate in the initial two-hour training session presented to volunteers committed to the on-going program. Training furnishes volunteers with information on issues commonly related to aging, covering the social, health and financial aspects.
"We educate them on the issues facing elders in difficult life circumstances," says Ware.
Also, volunteers choose their own visiting hours unlike other volunteer programs with set times.
"Our project is very appealing because volunteers don't have to have certain hours to visit. Their time is flexible."
The program's budget has not been as flexible, however. "We're in a budget crisis," Ware explains. The majority of the program's funding comes from United Way and private foundations, but recent cuts from King County's Special Projects Fund put a strain on the program.
Special activities, such as luncheons and individual outings to the theater and movies, were eliminated. Says Ware, "We're looking for foundations to support the project."
If interested in getting involved, learning more or wanting to volunteer for the Thanksgiving Day 2002 event or yearlong program, contact Kiersten Seeger Ware at (206) 224-3793 or log on to www.elderfriends.org.