Seniors in La Jolla who are homebound or isolated may become lonely and out of touch with the world. The La Jolla Friendly Visitors program matches kind-hearted volunteers with such seniors to provide them with companionship, conversation and whatever else develops from the friendships.
The recruitment process is ongoing and to learn more about the Friendly Visitors program, visit: lajollamealsonwheels.org/friendly-visitors.
The program started in 2013 as a companion to La Jolla Meals on Wheels, when organizers realized that many seniors needed more than just nutritious food — they needed someone to care about them in a special way.
Director Jeanne Walsh explained: “Volunteers assist seniors with picking up groceries, listening to stories, working on home projects, sharing games or tea time, and more ... These weekly visits generate joy for all those involved.”
The program currently has 32 volunteers and serves 25 seniors. Volunteers are screened through a background check and then matched with home-bound residents, based on personality traits, interests and geographical locations.
“Interests can range from similar occupations to cultural identities and passion for shared activities,” Walsh said, “For example, most recently, two retired nurses have become companions, and so have two military veterans. In taking the time to personally know both our clients and volunteers, we’re able to help them form strong connections that build meaningful relationships.”
Volunteers learn about the program through flyers posted around the community. Seniors hear of the program from community advertisements, faith-based organizations, neighbors, friends and relatives. Many loved ones seek out the service to support their family members.
La Jolla Friendly Visitors provides training and offers resources and support as needed. Volunteers are expected to visit their “friends” once or twice a week for an hour or two. The program was modeled after the Alameda Friendly Visitors program created in 2004.
Barbara Gilman has been visiting Sandra Gonzales for almost two years. She said she likes to share lunch with the 98-year-old. On the day the Light tagged along, the two were having fish, rice and vegetables. They ate slowly, relishing the food and the conversation.
“We started out splitting a sandwich, then our visits grew to a bigger meal,” Barbara said with a smile. “Sometimes Sandra even cooks.”
Sandra said her husband passed away 21 years ago and she’s been living alone ever since. Her niece helps her with groceries and medicine, but Barbara offers her something else — friendship. “It means a lot,” Sandra shares. “I love friends. They’re the best cure and they help you to be happy in this life. Maybe we don’t have tomorrow. We must do the best we can every day. It’s very hard to do so when you are alone. But when you find a friend, you are happy.”
Barbara says Sandra has taught her the two keys of life: “One is to be happy and the other is keep moving. I like hearing her words of wisdom. We have a great time.”
The program also offers seniors something to look forward to, a sense of hope, said volunteer Suzie Pirtle, who visits 95-year-old Maureen Stirling at the La Jolla Rehabilitation Center once or twice a week.
“I fell in love with her the minute I met her,” Suzie said. “So I became really involved in her life. We do lots of things together.” Suzie has taken Maureen to the La Jolla Playhouse, to a Mozart concert, to the movies, and on trips to Costco to get her eyes and ears checked. “Maureen always insists that we stop for a hot dog that’s this long, and she always wants a Sprite to drink. That’s the highlight of the Costco trip.”
Maureen used to live in Clairemont and before that, Canada, where she won an Olympic Medal in diving. Maureen went on to be a physical education teacher when she moved to California.
Suzie points out that Maureen is still very sharp. “This wonderful lady,” Suzie shares, “beats me at Scrabble every time. I thought maybe once in a while I could win, but no way! I try and try, and can’t stand it!”
Maureen proves her sharpness when she answers the question about why she appreciates Suzie. “She brings the world in to me,” she says. “She’s fun to be with. She takes me places I want to go. And she’s always in a good mood.”
Suzie laughs as her tears well up and adds: “We are part of each other’s worlds.”
• Want to know more about La Jolla Friendly Visitors? Visit lajollamealsonwheels.org/friendly-visitors or call (858) 922-2297.