Volunteers build stronger communities
By Bill Conallen
Volunteerism among older adults has become a staple in Philadelphia, particularly during the pandemic when many paid staff at senior centers were forced to stay home to care for themselves or their loved ones. Many of the city’s senior centers received help from their older adult members to lead workshops, cover the front desk, answer phones and make wellness calls to check on other members.
Philadelphia Corporation for Aging (PCA) joins Area Agencies on Aging nationwide in recognizing April as National Volunteer Month. PCA offers various volunteer programs aimed at addressing physical and economic security for older adults. With more Americans crossing into the older age bracket, this issue is becoming increasingly important as the need for caregiver and community support becomes paramount.
Alongside the work of senior center volunteers, PCA offers many volunteer programs that provide community and connection to older adults who may feel isolated. The Senior Companion Program is one such program that provides invaluable social connections for older adults. It is a person-to-person service program for older adults that is federally funded through AmeriCorps.
Senior Companion volunteers, who must be 55 or older, are paired with homebound, isolated older adults in need of assistance to remain in their homes. Companions provide socialization and assist with daily tasks, including light meal prep, running errands, and accompaniment to medical appointments. Senior Companions must meet income requirements and receive a small stipend to offset the cost of volunteering.
“As a Senior Companion, I’ve learned that the greatest gift, we can give to someone is simply our presence,” said Marguerite Spann, senior companion of nine years and East Mount Airy resident. “Listening with empathy and offering a helping hand can make all the difference in the world to someone who may be feeling lonely or struggling. Being a companion to older adults has not only enriched their lives, but also mine, and I am grateful for the opportunity to make a meaningful impact in their journey.”
The work of volunteers is often vital to helping nonprofit organizations achieve their mission. “PCA, as an organization, benefits from the experience, dedication, and support of older adults,” said Lynda Pickett, PCA’s assistant director of community engagement. “These active, older adult volunteers, in turn, allow PCA to expand its reach to help more older adults achieve independence in their lives that may otherwise be out of reach. Their unwavering commitment to serving our community is a testament to the power of aging with purpose.”
The COVID-19 pandemic created challenges for aging care over the past three years, which required adapting. In response, the Senior Companion Program implemented a telephone assurance component where volunteers can also call older adults to check in, share food resources, provide updates regarding the pandemic and socialize to combat isolation. As vaccine rates increased and community infection started to dissipate, volunteers increasingly were able to provide in-person companionship once again.
“The pandemic was a difficult period; my companion was completely cut off from many of the social interactions they relied on to stay connected and engaged,” Spann said. “For myself, the absence of in-person companionship was especially hard, and I am now more grateful to go out every day to play games and watch our favorite programs.”
Currently, there are more than 50 Senior Companion volunteers, but the program is actively seeking more older adults to provide invaluable socialization to older Philadelphians. Volunteers attend monthly in-service meetings, which are held virtually. Personal protective equipment is provided for use during home visits. If you’re interested in becoming a Senior Companion, call 215-422-4888 or email seniorcp@pcaCares.org.
PCA offers additional volunteer opportunities for older adults who have an interest in sharing health information with their peers. “At PCA, we believe that good health is essential to aging well,” said Lauren Jirinec, health promotion specialist at PCA. “That is why we are proud to offer a range of health promotion programs that empower older adults to take charge of their health and well-being. From fitness classes to chronic disease management, our programs are designed to support older adults in leading active, healthy and fulfilling lives.”
The Pennsylvania Medicare Education and Decision Insight Program (PA MEDI) is a federally funded health insurance counseling program for Pennsylvanians eligible for Medicare that is also largely run through volunteer work. Services are provided by the Center for Advocacy for the Rights and Interests of Elders (CARIE) and Einstein Medical Center.
After completing comprehensive training through the Pennsylvania Department of Aging and receiving certification, PA MEDI volunteers help older adults understand and navigate their health insurance options. Volunteers provide information and assistance by phone to help with Medicare eligibility and enrollment, Medicare Advantage, Medicare Supplement Insurance (Medigap), and prescription drug coverage.
PCA’s Health Promotion Programs offer other opportunities for those interested in volunteering to improve the health and wellness of older adults. PCA administers an evidence-based workshop series for self-management of chronic diseases, chronic pain and diabetes. Each series includes six weekly workshops taught by a trained volunteer instructor.
PCA also offers an evidence-based falls prevention program taught by volunteer facilitators, called coaches. This course runs for eight sessions and addresses the fear of falling by providing strategies to improve balance, mobility and activity level. Since the pandemic began, these workshops have been offered virtually, either by video conference or telephone.
“Our volunteers are committed to promoting the health and vitality of our community’s older adults,” Jirinec said. “We believe that our health promotion programs are an integral part of that mission.”
If you are interested in volunteer opportunities with PCA, call the PCA Helpline at 215-765-9040 or visit pcaCares.org/volunteer
Bill Conallen is the public relations specialist at Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.