Once a week, a mother and daughter from Eagle get into their car with baskets and drawers full of nail polish. There’s bubble-gum pink, rose pink, hot pink, clear polish with sparkles — and everything in between. They’re headed for Grace Assisted Living, where a group of women and the occasional man eagerly await their arrival.
Amy La Jocies and her 14-year-old daughter Ashley have been visiting Grace on State Street in Boise since June. Amy’s grandfather lived there for a year, and the La Jocies got to know his neighbors. When he died this year, they decided to keep visiting — joining the ranks of volunteers who spend time with seniors around the Treasure Valley.
“We get a kick out of the ladies. It’s not that we just kind of put up with them,” Amy La Jocies said. “They’re the funniest ladies, and we develop friendships.”
Other cities in the region such as Seattle, Portland and Durango, Colo., have organizations that pair volunteers with seniors — not for health care or errand-running purposes but purely to offer companionship. One nonprofit, Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly, has chapters in several U.S. cities.
The Idaho Statesman was unable to find a local organization that actively matches volunteers with seniors, solely to meet social and emotional needs. But there are self-starting volunteers who reach out, according to activities directors at local senior-living centers. And local chapters of Meals On Wheels visit hundreds of Treasure Valley seniors on a daily basis.
The need is critical. Isolation and loneliness can take a toll on seniors, affecting mental and physical health.
“Among participants who were older than 60 years, loneliness was a predictor of functional decline and death,” a study published in 2012 concluded, after researchers from the University of California San Francisco and the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center looked at assessments and outcomes of 1,604 seniors.
One important distinction they found: Loneliness is subjective.
The study found that “it is possible for persons who live alone to not feel lonely, while some who are married or living with others will still experience loneliness. Loneliness can be explained as the discrepancy between one’s desired relationships and one’s actual relationships.”
DINNER, MANICURE AND CONVERSATION
“We have heard from folks that if it weren’t for Meals On Wheels, they wouldn’t have seen anyone that week, wouldn’t have had a conversation with anyone,” said Grant Jones, director of Metro Meals on Wheels, which serves Ada County.
The organization has only 400 people on its volunteer roster, though. With their varying schedules and more than 5,000 meals to serve per week, each visit is limited to about 10 minutes, he said.
Friendships with elders are a two-way street, volunteers said. Amy La Jocies said she and her daughter might be the ones providing a service to Grace residents, but the nail-polish regulars have become motherly and grandmotherly figures to the younger women.
For an hour while they paint nails, the La Jocies listen to stories about American life 70, 80 or even 90 years ago. They catch up on the latest gossip at the senior home. They absorb bits of wisdom and get a weekly dose of laughter. Then, promptly at 5 p.m., they wave goodbye as their manicured friends head to the dining room.
It is such an easy thing to do, but it is meaningful for people.
Amy La Jocies, Eagle
The residents at Grace Assisted Living have come to rely on the weekly visits — so much that Grace administrators added it to the monthly calendar as “Fancy Nails.”
Also on the calendar: a men’s group, led by Eagle resident Lee Kaylor.
Kaylor’s son started the conversation group while he was out of work. When his son started working again last spring, the 76-year-old Kaylor figured, “I’m retired. It’ll give me something to do.”
‘MORE THAN A MEAL’
The handful of men who live at Grace gather every Tuesday for about 45 minutes. They sip coffee, eat cookies and reminisce.
“We talk about when they were young, their first car, their first date,” he said. “We talk sports. And try to stay away from religion and politics as much as we can.”
Most of the residents at Grace have family nearby and socialize with each other, Kaylor and La Jocies said.
“I don’t think anybody is neglected, but people are busy,” Amy La Jocies said. “No matter how much family you have around, it doesn’t pass the time of every day and hour. They love having something to look forward to.”
What about seniors who are homebound or who have no family? One way volunteers reach those seniors is through Meals On Wheels.
“[It] is much more than a meal,” said Jones. “A lot of it is that safety check. They know someone is going to check on them every day. They’ll see a friendly face. They’ll have a conversation with someone.”
The Ada County organization alone serves 900 hot meals each day — about 500 of those to homebound seniors — and drops off another 700 frozen meals on Fridays to get folks through the weekend. There also are Meals On Wheels operations in Canyon County and outlying areas of the Treasure Valley, he said.
Local community groups and workplaces go above and beyond to support Meals On Wheels around the holidays, he said, offering to take turns delivering meals as well as putting together stockings and cards for Christmas.
For seniors who are immobile and don’t have many visitors, the gifts brighten their spirits and give volunteers a conversation starter, Jones said.
But the need for more volunteers is growing, he said. More retirees are moving to Idaho, and people are living longer. This Christmas, about 100 more Ada County residents needed visits and meals from the organization than last Christmastime, he said.
He is encouraged by a growing “passion and commitment” to serving seniors, he said, but their needs can be overshadowed by efforts to help children and pets.
“A lot of the folks we serve don’t have anyone,” Jones said. “They don’t have any family members. Either their kids don’t live here, or they didn’t have children, or their children live far away [or] a spouse has passed away.”
Want to brighten a senior’s day?
Our community’s elders can be overlooked when it comes to charitable giving and volunteerism.
If you know someone who is isolated and needs assistance, call your local Area Agency on Aging (208-332-1745 in Southwest Idaho).
If you don’t know any seniors who would benefit from friendly company, you can still get involved by reaching out to that agency or:
▪ Hospice agencies
▪ Assisted-living and retirement communities
▪ Meals On Wheels (208-321-0031 for Ada County; 208-463-5720 for the Nampa area; 208-454-8142 in Caldwell)
Here are some tips for effective volunteering:
▪ Make a year-round commitment. The need goes beyond holidays.
▪ Have a schedule, and stick to it. Be reliable.
▪ Use skills you already have — painting nails, leading conversations, driving, reading out loud or doing arts and crafts.