A driving need to help make connections

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Delia Sava

Through blazing summer heat and rainy autumn days, Jim Smith drives older area residents to the doctor, grocery store and on errands as a volunteer with Senior Connection of Montgomery County.

At age 70, he figures there’s a kind of karma to it. “I’m getting to the point where things are changing for me, too,” he said. “I’m glad to be driving [them] now because there’ll come a time when someone will be driving me.”

Smith said those he drives are so happy to catch a ride that they didn’t even complain when his air conditioning didn’t work well during the summer.

Some Senior Connection’s volunteers, like Smith, typically spend a few hours each week ferrying people to places they would have trouble getting to otherwise.

Other volunteers make calls to an older neighbor or go shopping for someone who is not able to do it for themselves. Others offer to read to people, write for them, or help with paperwork.

The organization maintains an umbrella liability insurance policy, which covers all the volunteers while on assignments.

A much-needed service

Senior Connection was formed in 2003 from a merger of two nonprofit, interfaith groups. In addition to private donations, the group also receives public funds from Montgomery County.

Its mission is to provide mobility to people age 62 and older by connecting them to volunteers whose assistance can help them continue living independently.

Estelle Rollins started using the services of the organization seven years ago while she was receiving treatment for breast cancer. She needed transportation to appointments with her oncologist.

Rollins, who is now cancer-free and just needs to see her doctor every four months, appreciates the volunteers who provide her assistance.

“I can’t praise them enough because they helped me at a time when I was down and I thought I wasn’t going to get back up. They were there for me,” Rollins said. “They were just wonderful.”

Like Rollins, Marguerite Caruso has been unable to drive for the past six months and has needed the service to get to doctor appointments. She said she calls the agency in advance with her request and is then matched with a volunteer.

While thus far she has only used the service for medical appointments, she said in the future she may call on them for assistance with some other errands.

Caruso noted that she also appreciates “the offers to call and just talk with you.” She joked, “I don’t like [their services] to be advertised, because they are really besieged by calls for help, and I will have to call far in advance” from now on.

Volunteers are critical to fill the gaps in services, according to Sue Dollins, executive director of Senior Connection. “All services are dependent on the availability and willingness of a volunteer,” she said. “We always need to recruit new volunteers in order to keep pace with the growing demand for our services.”

Helping seniors age in place

The improvement in quality of life for those receiving the assistance is significant, explained Dollins, citing results from a recent evaluation: 81 percent of those being helped by Senior Connection agree that they are able to keep medical appointments more frequently, 73 percent feel less stress about getting to where they need to go, and 66 percent are better able to stay in their own home.

Part-time Senior Connection staff member and volunteer Marcia Custer visits weekly with 93-year-old Fannie Aizenberg, taking her grocery shopping and on other errands. 

Custer said that hearing Aizenberg’s story as a Holocaust survivor has piqued her interest in learning more. Custer is planning to visit Dachau on her vacation, so that she can better relate to Aizenberg’s experiences.

Liam McGrath has volunteered with Senior Connection for more than 10 years. He has served on its board and was its president until last year.

McGrath said he volunteers about six to eight hours per month, assisting two or three clients. “I get a feeling of instant value,” he said. “Clients sure do appreciate drivers and express it on the spot.

“It’s so clear how important what we do is to them.”

To learn more or to volunteer, visit www.seniorconnectionmc.org or call (301) 962-0820.

Former staff writer Mary Stachyra contributed to this story.