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'Friendly Visitors' Bring Cheer to Nursing Home Residents

AARP urges more volunteers, more facilities

Promo: The Friendly Visitor program brightens the lives of nursing home residents. AARP South Carolina hopes members will encourage nursing homes in their communities to participate in the program.

Art: Michael has a photo of Friendly Visitor Celia Glenn.

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Social work was fulfilling for a people person like Celia Glenn. Retirement, not so much.

When an AARP speaker described the state's Friendly Visitor program in nursing homes, "I thought it sounded like something I would like to do," said Glenn, 68, who'd been a social worker and supervisor in Greenville for 30 years.

As a nursing home volunteer, Glenn makes life a little brighter for residents who often have no family or friends. She reads to them, looks into minor complaints, chats and listens.

Friends say her volunteer work sounds depressing, "but it's not," she insisted. "It's very interesting, and some of these people are just so dear."

The "depressing" stigma isn't the program's only challenge. Not long ago, the number of South Carolinians who volunteered to be Friendly Visitor participants declined by more than half.

Catherine Angus manages volunteer programs at the state Office on Aging, which trains Friendly Visitor participants. Three years ago, she said, 35 Friendly Visitors provided 1,233 hours of service in 32 facilities. As the recession deepened, the following year ended with just 15 volunteers who served 500 hours in 15 facilities.

Angus attributes the drop-off in volunteers to rising gas prices that cut down on nonessential car trips and the increase in the number of people who have deferred retirement for economic reasons.

But Angus said she's hopeful about a recent uptick in volunteers — thanks largely to recruiting by AARP South Carolina.

Friendly Visitor volunteers receive 16 hours of training on privacy rules, how to deal with patients who have dementia and the boundaries volunteers must observe.

Serious allegations about neglect or abuse are handled by paid professionals called ombudsmen.

Angus said recent additions have boosted the number of volunteers to more than 30. She'd like to see the program expand, and so would AARP.

"More than half of the nursing homes in South Carolina do not participate in the Friendly Visitor program," said Doris Gleason, AARP South Carolina's associate state director for community outreach.

The nursing home industry in the state has opposed efforts to require nursing homes to admit Friendly Visitor volunteers.

Randy Lee, president of the South Carolina Health Care Association, which represents most of the state's long-term care facilities, said the program has worked well in the facilities that accept it. But making it mandatory "kind of destroys the 'friendly' part of it."

Gleason said AARP members are encouraged to advocate for Friendly Visitor volunteers in the nursing homes in their communities. "The volunteers make such a difference for lonely residents," she said.

Sandy Wroblewski, 65, started volunteering in 2007 after years of caring for her mother, who had dementia before she died. Wroblewski said residents like to chat about their relatives, hear about hers and look at family pictures.

"Even when a person doesn't seem like they're aware of what's going on, they still like to hear a friendly voice," said Wroblewski, a retired secretary who volunteers at Mountainview Nursing Home in Spartanburg, where she lives.

At Oakmont East Nursing Center in Greenville, Glenn joins fellow volunteers ranging from a woman who plays the dulcimer to people who bring pets. All help enrich life for the residents, said Beth Adams, activity director.

Nancy Eaker, 75, volunteered at Magnolia Place in Spartanburg after several relatives — including her late husband and mother — spent time in nursing homes.

"You get very attached to the people," Eaker said. "I would think, 'But for the grace of God, this could be me.' "

For more information, call AARP South Carolina at 1-866-389-5655 toll-free.

Linda H. Lamb is a writer living in Columbia, S.C.

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