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Even “remote” Volunteers can ease the loneliness of elders


By Toni Eaton

As the days begin to cool and the evenings come earlier, our thoughts turn to holiday visits and family gathered around the table. I know my thoughts do. But we all know this year will be different. That makes it all the more important that we find new ways to be together and that we encourage others to find ways to connect both safely and meaningfully.

We’re all adjusting to these new times and the ripple effects the pandemic has sent through our communities. For seniors living in nursing homes, assisted living centers, or in hospice care at home, feeling isolated and lonely has been one side effect of the precautions people have had to take to fight COVID-19 and keep each other safe. For many seniors, visitors have been few and far between. As we enter the winter months, that isolation may be felt even more keenly by our elders. It is not hard to imagine the sadness a cherished family member will feel this year when Thanksgiving—a time so wrapped up in family—is arriving, but family cannot. We all need to step up to make sure that void is filled.

Volunteers have always been friendly lights for those in nursing homes or for those housebound with an illness. But during these difficult times, these volunteer visits have been limited. People keep asking me what they can do if they cannot volunteer in-person the way they used to do before COVID. Not only are the seniors missing these volunteer visits, but the volunteers too are finding that they are feeling a great loss of connection to community that their hours of service gave them.

Volunteer service is not only good for the folks being helped, but it also boosts the helpers. According to the Mayo Clinic, those who volunteer report reduced stress, a greater sense of purpose, and lower rates of depression. Research shows that volunteers have better physical, mental, and social health.

While some volunteers—now that we understand more about COVID-19 and the precautions needed—are able to return to their community work in limited ways, others are still seeking opportunities that they feel comfortable doing. At Old Colony Hospice & Palliative Care, our visiting volunteer program was suspended out of an abundance of caution.  But our volunteers found other ways to help, such as sending homemade meals to the Dr. Ruth McLain Hospice Home in Braintree.

One “remote” volunteer opportunity that could make a big difference for lonely seniors in our region would be letter and card writing to those in nursing homes. Perhaps you already know someone who would be thrilled to get a card or a note. If not, you could contact the activity director at a local nursing home and ask where you could send some cheerful cards. These letters of friendship, even from a random volunteer, can have a profound impact for seniors in boosting their spirits. The effort can be small or large, depending on the time you have to devote to it. But be assured, when the mail comes, your notes will bring a smile to a senior who needs one.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR. Toni L. Eaton, RN, BSN, MS, is the President & CEO of Old Colony Hospice & Palliative Care of West Bridgewater, a dynamic non-profit hospice serving more than 55 communities south of Boston. OCH also runs the Dr. Ruth McLain Hospice Home in Braintree. A native and resident of the South Shore, Toni brings her compassion and experience as a nurse, a veteran, and a community leader to her insightful columns for South Shore Senior News. Her leadership has been honored by several groups, including the South Shore Women’s Business Network.

She currently sits on the boards of the Hospice & Palliative Care Federation of Massachusetts and the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization Regulatory Committee.

For more information, call (781) 341-4145 or visit Old Colony Hospice & Palliative Care.