Older, Alone, & Would Welcome Help? There’s Visiting Neighbors!

By Gail Evans

Since 1972, Visiting Neighbors (VN), a small organization in the West Village has relieved the loneliness and supported the independence of thousands of older Villagers and seniors in Chelsea, Tribeca and other communities south of 30th Street. It does this by providing services seniors need to remain connected with others and to get around in their communities. 

How do VN’s services improve a senior’s quality of life? Let’s start with Friendly Visiting. The service involves weekly visits to the home of a senior from a VN volunteer, who VN staff have matched to the senior in terms of mutual interests and their potential to like each other. During their visits, volunteer and senior sit and talk – about their week, their experiences, whatever’s on their minds. They may have tea or coffee, go for a walk, work on a project together or play games or cards. Thus, a lonely senior gets a new connection to life. Shopping assistance is another VN service that builds connection as well as supporting independent living. Going with the senior to shop, the volunteer helps her navigate city streets, choose her purchases, carry packages. As with friendly visiting, senior and volunteer are doing something together, talking and relating to each other. Accompaniment to a medical appointment or important meeting – escort service — offers similar support along with relationship building. 

VN also provides health and wellness expertise. If a client wants someone knowledgeable to talk to about health concerns or questions about providers, VN’s health advocate is a phone call or office visit away. If she or he would welcome a comprehensive in-home health assessment or a wellness visit by a nurse, VN makes that available through its partnership with the NYU Rory Meyers School of Nursing. Clients and the public in general are invited to VN’s health, nutrition and wellness workshops. 

“We serve everyone who needs us,” says Dr. Cynthia Maurer, Executive Director of VN for over 20 years. “We don’t charge, but we do ask for contributions. Our only other requirements? That our clients live in our geographic service area, make the request for services themselves, and are self-directing and able to communicate.”

“The key to our approach is focusing on the individual and respecting each one’s uniqueness and lifestyle,” Dr. Mauer explains. “We make it our business to get to know each client and volunteer and to make sure their needs and preferences are respected, and their worth appreciated. Promoting connection is at the heart of what we do. We see loneliness all the time. But many older people are stubborn, and all are proud. They don’t want to be a burden and they don’t want to appear needy. So, some new clients might find it easier to admit to practical needs like shopping assistance than to say. ‘I’m lonely.’ After they’ve begun receiving our services and have gotten to know us, they can accept friendly visiting as a precious gift. It helps also that our volunteers stress to clients ‘we are doing this together,’ not ‘I am doing this for you.”

VN’s volunteers are its “lifeblood,” says Steve Gould, VN’s Health Advocate. “They’re all ages and have different reasons for volunteering, but they all want a meaningful opportunity to befriend an older person and share hearts and minds. Many stay with us for years and become family to the seniors they work with.We’re always looking for volunteers and we’re proud of the training and support we give them.” 

This month VN is collecting donations of small new items to put in gift bags that volunteers will distribute to clients. At Thanksgiving the organization joined forces with Project Find to distribute holiday meals to the homebound who would be alone. Its’ partnership with an elementary school ensures that clients get greeting cards from kids on birthdays and other occasions. In the spring, VN will hold its annual Talent Show, a gala affair where seniors from across the City show that older people can still “strut their stuff.” What a way to fight negative stereotypes! It’s something Visiting Neighbors does every day! 

Call VN at 212-260-6200 if you’re a senior and wish services or if you’re a caring neighbor, relative or friend who wants to know more. its Call also if you want to explore volunteer opportunities, make a monetary donation or donate items to VN’s holiday gift drive.

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