Janet Seckel-Cerrotti is the Executive Director of FriendshipWorks, where she has been helping to match volunteers with socially isolated elders for 30 years.
What is FriendshipWorks?
FriendshipWorks is a nonprofit dedicated to helping elders in the Boston and Brookline area who are isolated and in need of a helping hand, a person to talk to, a friend. With over 62,000 elders living in Boston, more than 22,000 are currently living alone. Social isolation and loneliness among elders can be debilitating both emotionally and physically. It’s a growing problem for today’s generation, but we have a simple solution.
For the past 30 years FriendshipWorks has helped to end elder isolation in our community by connecting people and creating lasting, meaningful friendships.
Our mission is to decrease social isolation, improve quality of life, and maintain the dignity of elders. For three decades we have been matching elders with volunteers of all ages and backgrounds to provide services that create a lifeline. We have incredibly inspiring stories about the friendships that have developed between elders and volunteers and the impact these connections have had on people’s lives. These friendships are enriching lives in so many ways.
Can you describe the programs offered by FriendshipWorks?
The heart of FriendshipWorks is Friendly Visiting. This program matches volunteers with older adults who would like someone to visit them on a regular basis. Whether it’s helping with light chores, going shopping, having a cup of coffee, or doing other activities that friends enjoy, this type of ongoing interaction is so important to emotional and physical well being. In that regard, we have also incorporated an exercise component to this program called Walking Buddies. Walking is such a wonderful way to help elders focus on their strength, flexibility, and balance, and with the help of a volunteer, they are able to get out and enjoy this activity.
For older adults who are in need of assistance with specific tasks, we also offer a Friendly Helpers program. Being socially isolated can result in a loss of independence and this program helps elders maintain their independence and autonomy. Friendly Helper volunteers assist elders with such tasks such as raking leaves and hanging decorations, light packing, organizing papers, or shopping for a winter coat. Many of us could turn to family members or neighbors to help us, but some older adults don’t have this option. That’s where Friendly Helpers make such a difference.
Over the years as we developed and expanded our programming, we saw a significant need to help elders get to their medical appointments. As a result, we created the Medical Escort program. Research shows that people won’t even make doctor’s appointments if they don’t have someone to go with them. The stress of getting to an appointment, listening to and retaining the information at the appointment, and following up with prescriptions can be overwhelming. Our Medical Escort volunteers provide emotional support and door-through-door physical assistance to alleviate much of the stress. Many elders have told me that if it weren’t for our volunteers, they would have never been able to go out to receive the medical care that they need.
On a completely different note, we also offer a wonderful program for elders to interact with animals. Our PetPals program brings canine and feline volunteers and their owners to elderly residents in long-term care facilities. Studies have shown the incredible healing power of pets and we are proud to say that our program serves over 650 elders each week and it’s growing. At our recent 30th Anniversary Gala, many of our canine volunteers were in attendance and they were the hit of the night!
For 14 years, our Jamaica Plain satellite office (La Cadena de Amistad) has offered vital support for Spanish speaking elders. This office will soon be piloting an initiative to bring music as a specialty to our in-home visitation. More information about these programs is also available on our website.
I should also mention that we have developed a specialty in serving hearing and vision impaired elders.
What are some of the things you like about your job or working with older adults in general?
I am extremely passionate about what I do. It isn’t a job to me. Our staff, board of directors and volunteers are so dedicated and committed to helping serve the elder community. I think when people volunteer, they offer the best of themselves. We all share the rewards of connecting people and making people happy. I see the results of what we do each day and I see the difference our volunteers are making.
Personally, I’ve always enjoyed interacting with seniors and learning about their lives and their history. Elders have stories that reveal such rich lives and wisdom, and they have so much to share with our volunteers. The relationships FriendshipWorks create are not one-sided. As Andy Rooney said, “The best classroom in the world is at the feet of an elderly person.” Each generation can learn so much from one another and it’s so important for us to learn and listen and understand one another.
How does FriendshipWorks impact elder health?
When we started over 30 years ago, FriendshipWorks was ahead of the curve in understanding that social isolation has a negative impact on people’s lives. In the last 10 years, and especially in the last year or two, there has been a tremendous amount of research on the negative impact of social isolation among elders. Believe it or not, studies have shown that social isolation can be as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. That’s a pretty powerful statistic and one that we can do something about.
We all need someone or something to give us a reason to get up in the morning. If you have no one to talk to, no one to come visit you, you have no reason to keep your mind and heart stimulated. But if you have somewhere to go, someone you know who is going to be visiting you, you have a reason to get the day started!
Ironically, just at the time that we may need others more in our life to get around,
to help with daily tasks, to talk with, we find ourselves utterly alone.
We provide that reason for elders to get their day going on a positive note. The connections made through FriendshipWorks help create relationships, which keeps many of us healthy. It feeds us emotionally, physically. It feeds the human spirit, no matter what age you are.
What would you like the members of the MA Healthy Aging Collaborative to know?
Members of the collaborative can refer older adults to us. It can be hard to find those people who need help or would like a new friend because they are isolated and may not know who to call. If someone is involved with an organization in the Boston/ Brookline area and works with elders, we ask you to think about who could benefit from having a friend in their life, who might need support to go to a medical appointment, enjoy listening to or creating music, or taking a walk but are afraid to go alone. If you have a client, patient, or a neighbor in any one of these situations, please pick up the phone and call us. We also welcome calls from nursing homes and assisted living sites that would like visits from a PetPal volunteer. If they’re outside of Boston and don’t have a program similar to our model, we may be able to work with them to develop something like this in their community, or discuss options that may be helpful. Our goal is to help as many elders as possible and we are grateful for any assistance we receive in reaching this population.
But what I’d really like to tell people is to look around them and think:
What are the little things that I can do that might make a difference?
How can members of the MA Healthy Aging Collaborative reach you?
They can contact FriendshipWorks at (617) 482-1510. In addition, our website, www.fw4elders.org, is a wonderful resource filled with detailed information about all our programs and volunteer opportunities.