NORRISTOWN — Television doyenne Betty White once quipped: “My mother always used to say, ‘The older you get, the better you get, unless you’re a banana.’”
And, no question, the 96-year-old A-lister was in fine form on stage at the recent Emmy Awards. But, realistically, if you’re a senior citizen who isn’t Hollywood royalty, you’re probably less inclined to make jokes about aging when once simple chores like changing light bulbs and making beds have become anything but.
In truth, many seniors struggle to accomplish such tasks. Physical impairment makes some impossible, their children — or other close relatives — live out of the area, and they can’t afford hired help or assisted living.
That’s why volunteer efforts like Project HEARTH (Helping Elderly Adults Remain in Their Homes) and the Telephone Reassurance Program offered by Family Services of Montgomery County — both available to county residents 60 and up — are so important, says Deborah Solodar, Family Services’ director of senior services.
And just as funding such outreach services is a perennial headache, volunteers are their lifeblood.
Project HEARTH volunteers give seniors “concrete support services, such as transportation to medical appointments, grocery shopping assistance, friendly visiting and minor home repairs, such as installing bathroom safety grab bars …” Solodar explains. “In addition to keeping seniors safe and independent in their homes, these support services allow seniors to stay connected with the community and improve their emotional well-being.”
No exaggeration, recipients agree and uniformly describe their volunteer helpers as kind, helpful and polite.
“My HEARTH volunteer … drove me to several doctor appointments that were desperately needed,” says one local woman. “I don’t know how I could have managed it without the HEARTH program.”
Volunteer opportunities for Project HEARTH are available during the day and evening, including weekends. Volunteer drivers must have a valid driver’s license and insurance, but individuals of all ages, as well as church, community, corporate or youth groups, are welcome.
“It was awesome to see how much my work meant to them,” recalls one area middle school student who volunteered with Project HEARTH during a day of service. “It gave me a new perspective … and I hope to come back another time.”
Telephone Reassurance volunteers — required to be 18 or older and have daytime availability — are trained to ask “how the senior is doing, whether they are eating well and whether they need help with anything at home” during periodic phone chats.
“If the senior were to have an issue that required action, the volunteer would contact Family Services, and a staff member would speak with the client before contacting a designated family member or friend,” program spokesmen add.
The time commitment for both programs is flexible.
“Volunteering with … Project HEARTH and [the] Telephone Reassurance Program is not a huge time commitment,” says Volunteer Coordinator Aaron Shostak. “We can work with volunteers to find a match or opportunity that fits their schedule.”
Project HEARTH staffers report a 5 to 10 percent increase in the number of seniors or family members seeking assistance over the past three years. They point to data from the 2016-2020 Four Year Plan compiled by Montgomery County Office of Aging and Adult Services: “The population in Montgomery County in the past four years for age 65 and older has increased from 15.1 percent of the population to 16.4 percent. Currently, an estimated 176,411 persons over age 60 live in Montgomery County.”
September is Healthy Aging Month, but Family Services staffers have found Project HEARTH and the Telephone Reassurance Program boost senior health on a continuing basis.
“What makes Project HEARTH unique is its two main components — professional mental health counseling and volunteer support services,” Solodar says. “Through [its] mental health component, a licensed clinical social worker visits seniors in their own homes to help them cope with anxiety, depression, chronic illness, isolation, loneliness and loss.”
According to Solodar, Project HEARTH “remains one of the only programs in Montgomery County that provides professional counseling to seniors in their own homes.”
Created in 1994, it is currently funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Pottstown Area Health & Wellness Foundation, the VNA Foundation of Greater North Penn, the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey and the Montgomery County Office of Aging and Adult Services.
“The presence of depressive and anxiety disorders in seniors often adversely affects the course and complicates the treatment of other chronic diseases,” she continues. “Many seniors do not access traditional mental health services because they are isolated, physically frail, impoverished or have transportation difficulties. Through Project HEARTH, seniors can receive treatment, support, information and referrals while in the comfort of their own homes.”
Background checks and references are required for all Project HEARTH and Telephone Reassurance Program volunteers. The two services are available to all Montgomery residents 60 or older. Solodar invites potential volunteers or county seniors who “have questions about how to age at home safely” to contact her at 610-630-2111 ext. 242 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Family Services of Montgomery County was established in 1900, and the agency reports its programs for children, seniors and families “make a positive difference in the lives of 12,000 Montgomery County residents each year.” Additional information is available at fsmontco.org.