Salem seniors rescued from loneliness as volunteers drop in to chat

Connie Hayworth, right, plays cards with Emma Langford, center, and Julie Nibler, left. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

Connie Hayworth is thankful for her infectious personality, which has helped get other residents at Salem Transitional Care out of their rooms and social again.

At 79, Hayworth looks forward to a weekly card game with a pair of volunteers from the Friendship Brigade, a program that aims to alleviate loneliness in Salem’s senior living facilities.

On a recent Friday afternoon, Hayworth, Julie Nibler, 40, and Emma Langford, 16, played a round of Kings in the Corner, a multi-player Solitaire-style card game.

The three women constantly laughed, joking about who the real card shark was.

More than just card games keep the women entertained. Once, Langford said, Hayworth hatched an idea to go across the street, to a separate care facility, to get frozen yogurt.

Hayworth considers Langford and Nibler family. She has a granddaughter that doesn’t visit often, she said. When Langford gave her a card for Thanksgiving, she “happy cried.”

“It’s like my granddaughters coming to see me,” Hayworth said, wearing a teal sweater adorned with a Christmas ornament pin and festive hoop earrings.

Hayworth wasn’t sure what organization Nibler and Langford came from — a sorority she wondered aloud – because “I have so much fun with them, I forgot to ask.”

Julie Nibler, left, Emma Langford, center, and Connie Hayworth, right, play cards in a Salem Transition Care dining room on a Friday afternoon. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

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Volunteers with the Friendship Brigade visit one of 10 partner facilities during 13 regularly scheduled visits a week. Volunteer Julie Manetta said she wants to bring the seniors she visits a sense they are valued, and that someone wants to listen to them.

“When I’m there I’m interested in their story. I’m interested in how they’re feeling,” said Manetta, who volunteers with her husband, daughter and Siberian husky, Kenai. “It just brings me a lot of joy when they have fun or enjoy sharing their lives with me.”

Through visiting Farmington Square Salem, an assisted living facility on Boone Road, Manetti said she feels more prepared to find her parents a good retirement home should they need it someday.

Her advice to potential volunteers: “You really don’t have to feel nervous even though you don’t know the people yet when you walk in. They’re usually happy to talk. You’re not required to carry the conversation.”

Heidi Miller, the Friendship Brigade program manager, said the goal of the program was to make sure no one felt forgotten or alone.

Miller said having visitors sing to residents in retirement homes and writing cards during the holidays isn’t enough to alleviate loneliness, which she said is an adverse stimulus like hunger.

“You can’t just remember someone once or twice or three times or four times a year,” Miller said.

According to a 2010 AARP survey, a quarter of respondents older than 70 reported being lonely.

With that in mind, Miller helped create the Friendship Brigade so there would be regular weekly visits from one to two hours. The teams of three to six volunteers try to make connections with as many residents as possible.

In the second hour, volunteers try to engage the seniors into an activity like cards, crafts or visiting with volunteer dogs.

“It was amazing because as soon as we were on, we were connecting with 240 residents a week,” Miller said.

“I had no idea how incredibly tender and real our connections would be, and how authentic and how truly transformative and meaningful they would be to both the residents and our volunteers.”

Before taking on the role with Friends of Center 50+, Miller managed Meals on Wheels People in Portland.

Miller said one of her volunteers had lived in Portland her entire life and just saw the buildings as buildings.

When the volunteer started delivering meals, Miller said, it changed her. She started to see the buildings as collections of people.

“The way that we move around in our busy lives, we see buildings, we don’t see people,” Miller said.

With the Friendship Brigade, Miller is hoping to change that.

“The big takeaway is that we’re better together,” she said. “It’s all about being connected. Somehow our culture and our busyness and our technology, we’ve learned to be alone together but that’s not the same thing as being together.”

Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] or @daisysaphara.