By Thomas Goldsmith
Regular help with household chores and an hour of friendly conversation can represent a gift beyond price for an older North Carolinian living alone.
And for some isolated seniors and people with disabilities, that returning visitor or a dependable ride to a medical appointment can mean the difference between living independently and a move to residential long-term care.
In 2019, the federal government formed the Community Care Corps to support the growth of groups of volunteers to aid older people with light housework, rides to the doctor, and just plain company. Starting today, the federal DHHS-backed group will take applications for $19 million in eventual grants to local agencies across the country that will focus on new ways to recruit, train, monitor and schedule these volunteer caregivers.
In Wake County, the feds could look to the Cary-based Center for Volunteer Caregiving for a model that has successfully carried out that mission for 28 years. On Saturday, Cary resident Rosa Robinson, 75, at home in her apartment, welcomed volunteer and friend Shelley Kiger, 43, from Apex, in one of hundreds of such visits set up by the center each year.
For more than a year, Kiger has made regular trips to see Robinson, whose health problems make it hard for her to get around. The visits have blossomed into a relationship that works for both, they said.
“I just do just a little light housekeeping; I will sweep and vacuum the floors and mop the kitchen floors,” Kiger said.
“When you just change something, even to do spring cleaning, it will help boost her morale.”
The practical help and personal support Robinson gets from Kiger has helped urge the older woman toward healthier habits despite her arthritis, diabetes and heart problems.
“She came in and she asked me, ‘Is there anything that I need done?’” Robinson said. “And I would tell her and she would do it. And when she finished she said, ‘You want to go outside? Just go for a walk?’ Or either she’ll say, ‘Let’s go sit on your porch, and get some fresh air.’
She tried to get me out of the house, because she knows I’m just going to sit up here.”
Laughing, she added: “She says, ‘It’s nice outside, let’s go outside.’”
New approaches preferred
The federal effort to boost this type of volunteer service will include some of the same elements seen at the Center for Volunteer Caregiving, such as extensive background checks and an emphasis on helping lower-income older people.
Juliet Simone, director of national health at the nonprofit Oasis Institute, one of four partner organizations behind the new effort, said it was inspired by the work of New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Grisham introduced a Care Corps in her state, described as an “innovative caregiving initiative that places volunteers in communities to provide non-medical services to seniors and individuals with disabilities.”
In the first half of this year, groups will be chosen from among the more than 40 that have applied for annual grants of between $30,000 and $250,000, a Community Care Corps press release said. But as with many government or business efforts, the new corps doesn’t want to give support to a group that’s already accomplishing a stated goal. Instead of the tried and true, they want to see new and innovative ways of dealing with volunteer caregiving.
“There are a lot of organizations out there that are trying to get a program started,” said Elaine Whitford, executive director of the Center for Volunteer Caregiving. “The way we do it, it’s not the only way it can be done.
“We do a one-to-one match of volunteers to care recipients or caregivers who need respite,” she said.
Whitford said some organizations run their volunteer programs on a shift-basis, “where the volunteer signs up for one shift. So you could have lots of different people coming in and out.
“We prefer to run it more on an individualized relationship-based plan.’”
For Rosa Robinson, the retiree in Cary, her one-to-one relationship she has with Kiger is everything.
“The relationship that Shelley and I have, if something happened and she wouldn’t be able to come to me anymore, I don’t know how I would take somebody else,” she said.
‘We have a lot of experience’
Whitford said the Center for Volunteer Caregiving supports the Community Care Corps project but wants to feel more sure about how it will operate before applying for one of the grants. Even if they were successful in augmenting their agency’s annual budget of about $377,000, there’s no guarantee that the support would continue beyond a year or two given the vagaries of federal grants. During that period, new agencies testing new ideas will also have to get up to speed with raising money for when the federal spigot runs dry, Whitford said.
“We want to be a part of it because we have a lot of experience,” she said. “And we have a lot of knowledge and experience on how volunteers perform — whether they show up or not, and what you can expect and not expect out of volunteers.”
Along with the one-on-one volunteers such as Kiger, the Center for Volunteer Caregiving also offers respite programs for overburdened caregivers and transportation services for people such as Paul Fausneaucht, 54, a Raleigh resident and Army veteran who regularly gets rides from center volunteers.
Sometimes a match can be hard
Whitford, the center’s executive director, said years of experience have revealed the snags that can await a well-intentioned volunteer. She recalled the tale of a volunteer and a care recipient who hit a snag early on. The volunteer came back from her first visit and said everything had gone fine. Then the care recipient called.
“She said, ‘I want a new volunteer,’” Whitford said. “And we said, “What happened? We heard everything went great.”
The volunteer was “nice enough,” the response came but wouldn’t call the woman “Miss.”
“She just called me by my name,” the recipient said, then conceded that she had not asked to be addressed more formally.
She thought it would be the center’s duty to pass along that request.
“And we said, ‘Well, if you want to get better, try a conversation with her,’” Whitford said. “And she didn’t want to have that conversation.
“So we said, ‘Well, if you really don’t want to work with her anymore, we’ll put you back on the list, but we’ve got this amount of people waiting for service. We can’t guarantee you will find your volunteer immediately.’ So she was like, ‘Well, okay.’”
Fausneaucht said in a telephone interview that the Center for Volunteer Caregiving makes it possible for him to get to medical appointments at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Durham that would otherwise be nearly unreachable.
“I’m living here by myself; I don’t have any family here,” said Fausneaucht, who has a medical condition that limits his ability to get around.
“I have to call one week ahead of time and there is certain information I give them about my appointments. There’s volunteers that can look at the list and if they are able to do that, they will give me a call two days ahead of time,” he said. “It’s strictly volunteer; they aren’t getting paid for it. It’s really been a blessing.”