Community Hero: Jeannie Walsh works to help local seniors avoid loneliness
La Jolla resident Jeannie Walsh has spent the past eight years trying to keep local senior citizens from feeling isolated, and those efforts are appreciated now more than ever by the people she serves.
As director of La Jolla Friendly Visitors, a sister program of the La Jolla chapter of Meals on Wheels, Walsh connects seniors in need with a recruited volunteer who will visit them weekly, whether in their homes or at senior centers.
Walsh said the program is designed to “meet the needs of our seniors in terms of fighting off isolation and loneliness.”
Walsh said she interviews the seniors and volunteers “to tune in to their interests and their personality and their background.” She strives to match seniors and volunteers so “it’ll be fun for them to get together. That connection really works. I just love that part of my job.”
Walsh, who works full time as a receptionist with Wells Fargo Advisors in The Village, said her part-time work with La Jolla Friendly Visitors is “so rewarding because seniors are so wise and yet they have so many needs.”
They often are unwilling to say what their needs are, she said, so “it just pleases me so much that I’m able to be the middle person and help make things happen.”
La Jolla Friendly Visitors, which is free and funded by donations, is focused on serving seniors in the La Jolla, University Town Center, Clairemont and Pacific Beach areas. “I’ve carved out an area that I feel I’m able to service,” Walsh said.
Over the years, Walsh has cultivated relationships with staff members at local retirement communities. “I work closely with those at [La Jolla’s] Casa de Mañana [and] Chateau La Jolla” and a few in surrounding areas, she said. “If we get a call and it seems like we can make something happen, I get so excited.”
The volunteers for La Jolla Friendly Visitors become a “social companion” for the seniors they’re matched with, Walsh said. “They allow our seniors to reminisce, vent frustrations for the day or help them problem-solve. If it’s something that’s within our realm, we’re happy to give them suggestions or help them go through certain steps.”
Volunteers also can run small errands for seniors, she said, and the organization puts together small deliveries such as flower bouquets for Thanksgiving or holiday gift bags in December.
Maryann Roberts, who nominated Walsh for the La Jolla Light’s Community Heroes series, said her mother, Chateau La Jolla resident Cathleen Roberts, “basically had no friends” after moving to La Jolla from New York at age 90. “It was a whole new life for her.”
Walsh, who has known the Robertses through La Jolla Friendly Visitors for four years, “has a way with seniors and knowing what their needs are and how to match them up with a volunteer,” Maryann Roberts said.
She said Walsh “met with my mom right away and matched a volunteer with her personality,” who coincidentally grew up in the same New York borough Cathleen Roberts lived in.
Walsh goes “above and beyond,” Maryann said, “always asking what more she can do, what my mom is receptive to having. She’s very respectful of seniors and their individual moods or needs at the moment. I just think she’s amazing. She just loves our seniors so much.”
Patrick D’Auria, the volunteer matched with Cathleen, met Walsh via a flier Walsh posted in Bird Rock about La Jolla Friendly Visitors.
D’Auria, who works with Cathleen and a younger man, said Walsh has “a lightness and a kindness. When she walks into one of these homes, she is well-recognized and she remembers a lot of the seniors and they remember her. She is very caring and sincere.”
Walsh also shows she cares about more than the seniors. “Jeannie always keeps in contact with me,” Maryann said. “She is way better at that than I am. She will always check in. ... She cares about me, about how I’m doing.”
D’Auria said Walsh “actually calls me just to check in on me sometimes. That’s very sweet of her.”
La Jolla Friendly Visitors’ services are a little different during the coronavirus pandemic, Walsh said. In-person visits ceased for a while, returning months later with masks and social distancing.
Walsh said she’s “constantly reaching out to our volunteers and encouraging them now more than ever” to call the seniors or write cards to them.
“Humans are so used to being in contact; we’re all social creatures,” she said. “I think this pandemic has been very challenging for [younger people], but when you think that seniors have lost many of their friends already … if they only have a couple of people that they’re reaching out to and that dwindles, the days can be very long for them.
“It just means everything to them to be remembered and thought of. It just keeps them going.”
La Jolla Friendly Visitors currently has 33 volunteers and 22 clients and is always looking for more. For more information or to volunteer, visit lajollamealsonwheels.org.
The La Jolla Light’s Community Heroes series for the holiday period highlights people who aren’t often in the news but make a difference in the lives of others. If you know such a person, email Editor Rob Vardon at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please limit suggestions to people who live or work in La Jolla or otherwise have strong ties to the community. ◆
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