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Friendly visitors bring kindness, friendship to Los Altos seniors

Los Altos resident Fran Millett didn't know what to expect when she volunteered as a "friendly visitor" for the Friendly Visitor Service of Santa Clara County, a service that brings together volunteer visitors and older individuals who are isolated and have no immediate family or friends to help.

"When I first met Helen, it was like we had been friends our whole lives," Millett said of her friend Helen, whom she meets once a week. They've been meeting for almost a year now.

"We talk about so many interesting things, we read some of the same books," Millet said. "Helen is 87 years old and is a very talented artist and incredible poet. You should hear the words that pour from her mouth when she speaks. She is so gifted."

"We are both Southern girls," said Millett who is from Arkansas. Helen hails from Virginia. Fran Millet said she and Helen talk about Southern Cooking "Ah, the corn bread!" they say. "We enjoy the corn bread at Marie Callendars together." They will be going again soon.

Many of these special friendships are due to the astute matchmaking skills of Charlene Piercey, coordinator for the service, who tries to match pairs according to backgrounds, interests, personal schedules, and where one lives or works.

"We're talking about friendships, two-way friendships, what starts out as a service turns into special friendships," Pierce said. "Clients are living independent, dignified lives and often learning to cope with new found isolation and limited access to socialization and transportation."

The Friendly Visitors Service is a non-profit, countywide program sponsored by the Council on Aging of Santa Clara County. It is a 30-year-old senior service agency which matches volunteers with older people who enjoy being independent but are limited in their link to the outside world. The Service has three volunteer opportunities: friendly visitor, nursing home cheergiver, or phone friend.

Friendly Visitors are matched with older people and provide weekly visits involving, for example, a cup of coffee, conversation, reading or writing letters, an outing to a library, restaurant or store. Volunteers can visit an elder right here in Los Altos or in the city in which they work.

Nursing home cheergivers visit a nursing home on a weekly basis and share time with many residents for an hour at a time. More than 50 percent of nursing home residents are usually too frail physically or mentally to have an hourlong visit.

"Shorter visits bang people a smile, a laugh, human association, a touch," said Pam Murphy, cheergiver coordinator, "and among our cheergivers we have at least six sets of mother/daughter pairs in the county who visit nursing homes."

For volunteers who can't get away, they can volunteer to be a phone friend and make a brief daily phone call to someone who needs a quick "cheer up" call.

Heemook Kwan of Los Altos has visited her friend for more than three years now. Both are immigrants to America, Kwan from Korea and her friend from Switzerland.

"Our friendship is of mutual benefit to me," Kwan said. "She is a source of comfort to me. I never feel obligated to see her, I go because I enjoy being with her, too. We have a cup of coffee and talk."

Kwan's friend will be leaving the area soon to live with her daughter. A heart-sick Kwan said, "I will miss her - a lot!"

Los Altos resident Veronica Kent moved here from Canada five years ago. "I was a foreign student at Stanford and when I decided to stay here I wanted to give some time to the community.

"I was looking for volunteer work and discovered the ad in the Town Crier for the Friendly Visitor Service," said Kent, who works full-time and who has been visiting her British friend for two years. "We talk about everything, the news, we go for a walk with the dog and she has even made me a British cake. Because of her deteriorating eyesight, we go through the TV Guide and I mark with a big red pen the shows that we decide look interesting.

"I forget I am volunteering for the service," Kent said. "My friend is like my family. I learn so much about British history from her and drink my cup of tea every time I visit. I encourage people to volunteer because it is a pleasant experience that does not feel like an obligation."

Kent's husband, Mark, recently visited his wife's senior friend while she was on a trip to Canada.

Los Altos resident Peggy Landers, a mother and in part-time work, also enjoys volunteering for the service.

"This is so easy to do and makes a difference in life," she said.

Landers' stepfather had a stroke and saw her own mother visiting many other patients as well as her loved one. "I wanted to do the same," she said.

When the Friendly Visiting Service called Peggy Landers with a possible match, coordinators said there might be a problem: the senior has three dogs.

Landers recalled saying, "That's perfect - so do I! We love animals, especially dogs." The relationship was clinched and now daughter Jamie, 12 years old, visits also. Landers' friend has been frustrated by diabetes and can't read very well. They take trips to the Los Altos Main Library find large-print Readers Digest magazines, a favorite for this pair.

Rita Baum, director of Friendly Visiting Service, described the organization's set-up: "We are funded by the Council on Aging, United Way, and friends in the community who are concerned about the well being of isolated, older persons living in private homes, board and care home or skilled nursing facilities.

"We are hoping to get funding to expand to other cities and we have started an intergenerational program at two nursing homes with students from two Santa Clara high schools as nursing home cheergiver volunteers," Baum said.

There is no fee for this service and it is available to Santa Clara County residents aged 60 and older. To inquire about donations, register as a volunteer or register for this service, call 329-0888.

If you know of someone who has performed an Act of Kindness, write to Mary Cunneen-Lion courtesy of the Los Altos Town Crier, 138 Main St., Los Altos 94022, or call 948-9000, ext. 313.

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