Giving has never been so enjoyable!
The first months of the pandemic took a heavy toll on the elderly. Seeing the widespread loneliness and isolation that elders experienced reminded Brenda Case of how her mother felt after an illness took away her independence.
Before falling ill, Case’s mother was very active in her community. When Case was forced to step in as a full-time caregiver, she realized how much her mother depended on her for social interactions and how much older people can become lonely when they are no longer independent, even in the presence of family members.
â€œEven though she wasn’t in an institution, I was the only face she saw,â€ said Case, 58.
The loneliness and isolation created by the pandemic inspired Case to create the Senior Engagement Project in November 2020.
The Senior Engagement Project is a volunteer-run affiliate of Mutual Aid Partners, a local non-profit organization formed at the start of the pandemic. Senior Engagement volunteers fight loneliness by delivering care packages and spreading joy to elderly residents of nursing homes, care centers and senior apartment complexes. Volunteers can also arrange special visits to homebound seniors, as well as to rehabilitation facilities that have clients with restricted activities.
“We want them to feel included, like they’re part of something,” said volunteer Lori Rienstra, 62. “So many of us have seniors in our families and we want them to feel as included and loved as the next person.”
â€œIt really brings communities of all walks of life and all ages together for a cause that’s bigger than they are,â€ added Case. â€œThe love I have witnessed has been so refreshing! “
Spread the joy
Senior Engagement is made up of teams that adopt one or two senior communities. Project managers choose three to four holidays per year when all the volunteers make a concerted effort to fill the residents with love.
â€œChristmas, Easter and Thanksgiving seem to be the holidays most teams are working on. However, we did a huge project for Valentine’s Day this year, and some are planning to do some fall baskets, â€said Case.
Senior Engagement also takes requests for special occasions, such as celebrating a senior’s birthday or anniversary. But for the most part, volunteers are only needed for special occasions and are not required to make a daily, weekly or monthly commitment.
Currently, 23 team leaders support 28 entities, which include skilled nursing facilities, assisted living facilities, home care agencies and rehabilitation services. The number of volunteers in a team varies, with some groups supported by 12-20 members and other leaders going it alone.
â€œI wanted a lot of autonomy in this project, so each team has their own approach,â€ said Case. â€œI only ask the team leaders to communicate and let me know what they are doing and encourage them to contact me if they need financial or other help. “
Dani Wright, 52, is approaching her second birthday as a team leader for Operation Senior Cheer 970, a Senior Engagement Project entity. She and her team work with Grand Junction’s Cappella to make the holidays and other occasions special for residents by handing out freebies and awarding items on their wish lists.
Gifts of candy and snacks, fluffy socks, craft supplies, cards and handmade flowers are typical, but project volunteers also donate essentials like toothpaste, shampoo, tissues and of Chapstick.
â€œWe have to remember that some of these people live in 200 to 300 square feet. We don’t just want to give them trash, we want to give them things they can use, â€Wright said.
Stacey Wood’s team works the same with the staff and residents of a nursing home in Palisade.
â€œA lot of these residents don’t have families, so this may be the only time they get something special to let them know they are loved,â€ said Wood, 56.
Especially for low-income seniors in Medicaid-funded communities, residents are equally happy to receive such basic items as pillows and socks.
â€œFor Christmas last year, all they wanted was a set of sheets,â€ Wood said. “Sometimes we forget the basics of life that are so important, like a beautifully colored quilt.”
Unfortunately, many mistakenly believe that communities provide these everyday items to residents.
â€œA lot of people think communities are providing things like toothpaste and sheets when they don’t. For some Medicaid facilities, the funds don’t go far, â€Wood said.
Age is not a barrier to volunteering, and the Senior Engagement Project includes seniors who help other seniors.
While some teams have a large base of active volunteers, others have very few. This can put team leaders in a financial crisis.
Senior Engagement accepts donations of money and property, including a small amount of funding from individuals through mutual aid partners. Case and other volunteers spend their own money if funds are scarce, but she would like to have commercial sponsors to support the project.
When Operation Senior Cheer receives an abundance of donations, they support FirstLight Home Care and a group of elderly companions. Wright’s group also helps the elderly by running errands, helping them around the house, and bringing them a hot meal from a local grocery store.
Whatever gifts they prepare, the best part is handing them out.
â€œThe light in their eyes and the smiles on their faces are priceless! Wright said.
According to Case, it’s not uncommon for volunteers’ homes and garages to be overrun with crafts or gifts, especially during the holidays.
â€œLast Christmas we gave gifts to the elderly and their caregivers,â€ she said. â€œIt was 2,600 gifts or something. It was phenomenal and more than I could have hoped for.
Wright echoed that some of his gift deliveries filled several cars to capacity.
â€œOne of my fondest memories is a group of vases that I personally made for Valentine’s Day,â€ Wright said. “I’m not a cunning person but I thought they were so cute.”
Other organizations are more than welcome to help and join the project.
â€œWe’re always looking for parents or teachers who work with young children who enjoy drawing,â€ Case said. â€œA card drawn by hand by a child is the most coveted gift we can give. I personally delivered them and saw them shine with happiness!
To be involved!
The Senior Engagement Project invites BEACON readers to join in on the fun, or to reach out if they need to. The project accepts various donated goods, including:
â€¢ Socks (non sexist)
â€¢ Gloves (not bulky)
â€¢ Unscented stick
â€¢ Small tubes of toothpaste
â€¢ Packets of travel tissues
â€¢ emery boards, nail files and nail clippers
â€¢ Costume jewelry
â€¢ Notepads and pens
â€¢ chocolates without sugar
â€¢ Small novelty items like stuffed animals,
playing cards, puzzles, etc.
Drop off the items at the Grand Junction Universalist Unitarian Church, 536 Ouray Ave., Tuesday between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. and note that they are intended for the Senior Engagement Project. Case can also arrange to pick up items anywhere in the Great Valley.
You can also make a tax-deductible donation through Mutual Aid Partners (ATTN: Senior Engagement Project), or donate through PayPal to [emailÂ protected]