Around the Island

Need a friend — be a friend: Senior program seeks volunteers

The two major drivers of the Friendly Visitors program — Shelter Island Presbyterian Church member Marilynn Pysher and Senior Services Director Laurie Fanelli — are searching for volunteers to meet the growing need to help homebound seniors from becoming isolated.

The women launched the program last winter, identifying seniors who would welcome visits from volunteers and began matching them to those they shared interests with  and believed would be able to develop trust.

Maybe it’s a shared interest in a hobby or the fact that the visitor and senior have a long history of rooting for the same team. It can be tentative at the outset, but it’s a place to start a conversation that can lead to a close relationship, Ms. Pysher said.

Whatever the starting point, experience has taught her that the volunteer tends to get more than he or she gives to the program, she said. “This is not a huge commitment,” Ms. Pysher added. “It’s loose, but a lovely thing to do.”

She describes the senior with whom she was matched as “very private,” adding that they’ve been able to develop a relationship built on common interests and, over time, created the trust necessary to make their friendship viable.

The Friendly Visitors program is a national effort operating under various titles, but not every community has been as fortunate as Shelter Island to put the pieces in place necessary to keep it thriving.

What works here, besides the tendency of Islanders to want to reach out to their neighbors, has been Ms. Fanelli’s work in identifying appropriate matches. Volunteers fill out forms indicating their skills and interests and provide information about other volunteer services in which they’ve been involved and their availability to give time to the program.

Each volunteer must provide some references and Suffolk County Police must vet their backgrounds to ensure there are no problems that might interfere with their ability to render service safely.

Those seniors wishing to have a match fill out their own enrollment forms, providing information on their backgrounds, languages they speak, information on aides if someone assists them, any special health conditions and other relevant factors to create an effective match. All information is confidential.

Initially, about a dozen seniors sought contacts through the program, but as the senior population is growing and aging, there’s a current need for more volunteers who can give an hour or so a week for a visit.

Often, visits occur in a senior’s home, but some are mobile and can join a volunteer for a meal, perhaps one of the low-cost Dinner Bell lunches at the Presbyterian Church on Mondays and Fridays, or at an activity at the Senior Center that could be as simple as watching a movie together or participating in a card game.

Whether you’re a senior who would welcome a new friend or are interested in volunteering for friendly visits, call Ms. Fanelli at (631) 749 1059 or email her at [email protected]