MAYVILLE - Across the county, older adults wait patiently in their homes, hoping for a visit from a relative or friend.
Whether the men and women stay in a private home, nursing home or assisted living facility, growing older can be a lonely, painful process. Once relatives and friends have passed on, sometimes visitors never come.
Catholic Charities of Buffalo and St. Mary of Lourdes Visiting and Respite Care Ministry in Mayville hope to change that.
The ministry of St. Mary of Lourdes Parish offers weekly visits to homebound or nursing home residents ages 60 and older. The parish organization is an affiliate of Catholic Charities' Friendly Visitors and Friendly Phones program, which has provided adults with socialization and companionship for 25 years.
"It's hard to recognize the plight of any senior resident in the county," said Karen Gibson, Catholic Charities' Chautauqua County outreach social worker. "They lose everything that was important to them. They've lost their family and friends, and everyone in their lives have died. Some of the nursing homes and assisted living facilities are wonderful, but it's a grief process for those people when they move into a nursing home."
St. Mary of Lourdes Visiting and Respite Care Ministry started five years ago after many of the church's parishioners fell ill and grew old. As many as 50 volunteers have participated in the ministry at one time, combining for more than 8,000 volunteer hours. The ministry served nearly 1,900 hours in 2011 through the work of 37 volunteers.
"We visit people in the community who are ill or homebound," said Mary Powers, coordinator of the ministry. "In our work with the people at the nursing homes and the private homes, you start out as volunteers, but you become friends. When they pass away, it's like you've lost a friend."
At the end of 2011, the ministry was serving 27 Absolut Care residents, 29 Heritage Green residents and 10 Heritage Village residents. There were also five home visiting cases at year's end.
The volunteers don't just visit St. Mary's parishioners. They typically travel within a 15-mile radius of their homes.
Since the ministry's creation in February 2007, those who visited or gave respite in private homes handled 20 cases, many of which lasted two or three years. The ministry's total number of volunteer hours nearly doubled from 2007 to 2011. Although some of the volunteers are Jamestown Community College and SUNY Fredonia students working on field placements, most are retirees, making retention an issue. The volunteers get sick themselves or find they're too busy to continue with the program.
"My goal when I'm coordinating this is that everyone who we've been asked to visit gets a weekly visit," Powers said. "We try."
Friendly Visitors and Friendly Phones and the St. Mary's ministry don't have many volunteers under the age of 60 due to work and family related obligations.
The volunteers schedule their own visits. Some choose to visit each week. Others opt for biweekly or monthly meetings. Some people volunteer each week but visit different clients. Some visit in pairs. Others go on their own.
Friendly Visitors and Friendly Phones gives students direct lines of contact to their fields. They learn to interact with people with various disabilities and speak with adults who have been places they might never go. Some of the volunteers meet regularly with World War II veterans.
"It's something they'll never get in a book," Powers said.
Friendly Visitors and Friendly Phones and the St. Mary's ministry do not evangelize. They just provide socialization.
"We don't care who we come in contact with," Gibson said. "They can be of any religion or race."
Volunteers can pray with clients upon request, however.
MAKING A VOLUNTEER
Gibson receives calls from social workers, the Office for the Aging and area residents, who provide suggestions on who could benefit from Friendly Visitors or Friendly Phones.
One particular call concerned an elderly woman, whose neighbors noticed she received few, if any, visitors.
Gibson called the elderly woman and began telling her about Friendly Phones. The woman didn't initially believe Gibson worked for Catholic Charities. After hanging up and calling the organization, she agreed to let Gibson stop by her house. When Gibson arrived to drop off paperwork, the woman was in tears.
"You're the first person to walk through my door in two weeks," the woman told Gibson. Her previous visitor was the man she paid to take her grocery shopping. The woman's husband and siblings were dead, and her only child was fighting a war in Afghanistan.
"It was the saddest thing I ever saw," Gibson said.
Gibson matched the woman with a volunteer. The woman soon contacted Gibson, telling her she would like to volunteer herself. The woman now makes six calls a day.
"She's not depressed anymore," Gibson said. "She's not lonely anymore. She went from being isolated and lonely to being back a part of the world. Especially if I have someone who's resistant, she's the one I can match them up with to ease them into the program. She's wonderful."
LOOKING FOR MORE
According to the 2010 Census, nearly 135,000 people live in Chautauqua County. More than 16 percent of those residents are 65 or older, making the visitation programs valuable.
"It's a huge need," Gibson said. "We're filling gaps all over the place."
Friendly Visitors and Friendly Phones operates mostly in Chautauqua and Erie counties. However, Gibson hopes to expand the program into all eight counties within the Diocese of Buffalo.
More than 200 volunteers in Erie County currently participate in Friendly Phones. That program hasn't caught on as quickly in Chautauqua County, however.
"The thing we've found that's frustrating in Chautauqua County is that if you live in Jamestown and call Dunkirk, it's long distance," Gibson said. "Long distance is a huge issue for people on fixed incomes."
In order for Friendly Visitors and Friendly Phones to spread throughout the county, more volunteers and churches will need to get involved, Powers said.
To start a visiting group, a church would need volunteers, a good relationship with a nursing home or an assisted living facility, and a coordinator. The volunteers will need to understand what they're getting themselves into, including the sights and sounds of nursing homes.
"It is a ministry," Powers said. "If the sight of an old person turns you off, you shouldn't be in this ministry."
Gibson and Powers train volunteers and would help new groups start up. However, the groups must be able to sustain themselves once they get going. They could take lives of their own as well.
"It doesn't have to be exactly what we have," Powers said. "It can be a different program. We just want these people to have visitors."
"People living in nursing homes can be profoundly lonely," added Gibson. "It's a sad situation. The primary goal of that respite care, whether it be Friendly Visitors or Friendly Phones, is to alleviate that loneliness."
Those interested in expanding Friendly Visitors and Friendly Phones should contact Gibson at 366-3533.