Volunteers help ensure independent living for seniors

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Getting older often brings life-changing challenges that sometimes threaten independent living for seniors. But a cadre of local services is available for seniors struggling to get by in their own homes -- and for people looking for volunteer opportunities.

In Squirrel Hill, Sharyn Rubin, senior manager for Age Well Pittsburgh, said it's important for seniors to know what services are available to them, but it's also important that they perform volunteer work that keeps their lives vibrant.

"There are literally hundreds of volunteer opportunities for people who have extra time and want to give something back," she said. "While we don't pay our volunteers, they do come out feeling richer -- maybe not in their pocketbooks but in their hearts."

Bolstering the region's service agencies that focus on the elderly is a relatively new program called Open Your Heart to a Senior, an initiative of the United Way of Allegheny County established in 2010 that helps seniors remain in their homes with the assistance of volunteers.

Working in partnership with Family Services of Western Pennsylvania and North Hills Community Outreach, the organization's volunteers help seniors by providing transportation to medical appointments and grocery shopping, yard work, simple home repairs, meal delivery, snow removal, home visits and reassurance calls on the telephone.

"In 2011, 378 volunteers served more than 1,350 seniors throughout Allegheny County for a total of 12,500 volunteer hours," Open Your Heart coordinator Nancy Jones said. "Providing seniors with transportation is a big portion of our program, but we like to say it's not just a ride, it's an ongoing relationship, because we like to match our volunteers with our seniors."

In Monroeville, Charles and Jacqueline Mikell, both 78, each schedule two to three medical appointments per month. With no relatives living in the area and both unable to drive, they rely on volunteers to get them to their doctors.

"The volunteers are an absolute godsend because we wouldn't be able to go anywhere without them," Mr. Mikell said. "Their services are a tremendous help, and we can't thank the volunteers enough."

Seeking to build its volunteer base, the organization is scheduling a series of orientation sessions for new recruits that start with a review of general information about aging and a description of how volunteers can help. The sessions run about 11/2 hours and at the end of the session, volunteers are registered in the program. There is no cost to participate, but volunteers are asked to provide two personal references and submit to a background check. Volunteers should be at least 18, although younger people could be accepted to do tasks such as housecleaning or shopping.

In Plum, Alice Mertz, 73, has been driving seniors to medical appointments and shopping outings, as well as making "friendly home visits" since 1998 as a volunteer with Interfaith Volunteer Caregivers in East Liberty.

"I volunteer because I feel that it's what God wants me to do," she said. "It makes me feel good inside, and I know that if I needed help, I'd appreciate the service myself."

Another service, the Lutheran Service Society's Meals on Wheels serves at least one hot meal to about 2,000 recipients in their homes Monday through Friday. The meals are distributed by volunteers from 28 locations in Allegheny County, including kitchens in Monroeville, McKeesport, Elizabeth, Homewood and Wilkins.

"Our volunteers are aging," said Patty Davidson, the society's chief development officer. "With an average age of 70, we're anticipating that a large number of them will retire from our program soon, so we're trying to build our base."

Recently the society partnered with Open Your Heart to a Senior looking for more volunteers.

The society offers flexible hours, and volunteers can work as little as one day a month, though some people volunteer every day. New volunteers can take the Open Your Heart orientation session and follow up immediately with a Meals on Wheels breakout session lasting no more than a half hour.

"Our delivery routes can be a short as a 45-minute drive, but none is more than an hour and a half long," Ms. Davidson said.

Orientation for new volunteers for Open Your Heart to a Senior is as follows:

• 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, UPMC Lighthouse Point, 500 Chapel Harbor Drive, Fox Chapel.

• 5 p.m. Thursday, Family Services of Western PA, 6401 Penn Ave., second floor, East Liberty.

• 1 p.m. July 14, Family Services of Western PA, 6401 Penn Ave., second floor, East Liberty.

• 6:30 p.m. July 25, North Hills Community Outreach, 1975 Ferguson Road, Allison Park.

• 1 p.m. Aug. 4, Family Services of Western PA, 6401 Penn Ave., second floor, East Liberty.

• 5 p.m. Aug. 9, Family Services of Western PA, 6401 Penn Ave., second floor, East Liberty.

• 9:30 a.m. Aug. 16, AGH Suburban Hospital, 100 S. Jackson Ave., Bellevue.

• 6:30 p.m. Aug. 21, UPMC Lighthouse Pointe, 500 Chapel Harbor Drive, Fox Chapel.

From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. July 14 and Aug. 4, Safety for Seniors Days will offer an hour-long training session at the Family Service Office, 6401 Penn Ave., East Liberty. After the session, volunteers will pair up and visit two senior citizen homes and evaluate them for common fall and fire hazards.

"Volunteers will go out with a checklist and report concerns to our program staff, who will follow up with referrals to appropriate home repair agencies," said Rachel Steigerwalt, manager of Older Adult Services for Family Home Services of Western PA.

To register for Open Your Heart to a Senior new volunteer orientation or Safety for Seniors Days orientation: 412-307-0071 or toll free at 1-866-467-0888.

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Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer; suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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