Cultivating Companionship: A Non-Profit’s Intent to Honor the Aged

by Katie McGunagle  |  Thursday Dec. 1st, 2016

As the sky darkens and snows settle about us, many of us reach instinctively for ski poles and boots, snowboards and skates. We are used to the language of winter here in Montana, and we speak it well. Amidst the clamor for activity this season, however, others are finding a special form of companionship and thrill outside of the ski slopes and snow-topped hills.

Befrienders, a non-profit program, “matches” community volunteers with members of Bozeman’s aging population with the intention of cultivating positive and continual relationships mutual to both parties. Such “befriending” has been ongoing since 1993, when the program first bloomed after a particular encounter between founder Pete Merrill and an elderly woman who tapped on Merrill’s car window as he was waiting in a grocery store parking lot. The woman requested a ride home in exchange for thirty-five cents. Merrill obliged, naturally refusing to accept the thirty-five cents, and proceeded to clear the ice from her walkway and visit with the woman over cookies and ginger ale.

Such social interaction within the city’s aging population, Merrill realized, is sorely lacking and even more sorely needed. Indeed, many elderly individuals experience neglect, loneliness, depression, and/or abuse as a result of financial factors, limited social interaction and mobility, and others’ lack of awareness of their needs as they transition into their later years. Befrienders seeks to alleviate such common symptoms of age transition and foster rich friendships that “honor the human spirit.”

This Christmas season, over sixty matches will actively be meeting for weekly activities, which include lunch dates, trips to the movie theater, grocery store, or hair salon, game playing, or simply conversation. While volunteers are required to visit their companions for one hour a week for a year of service, most relationships organically shift into longer and more frequent interactions.

“[Volunteers and elders] become family,” Befrienders’ executive director, Jessica Stillman, affirmed. “Befrienders creates daughters and grandfathers, nieces and nephews.”

Only nineteen percent of seniors in the program live with at least one family member; many are presently subsisting via assisted incomes. Weekly visits to befriended individuals can quite simply transform their days and weeks. Testaments on the program’s website speak of Befrienders and Befriended individuals as “blessings” and lifelong companions. One present match has been active for eight years.

The program has attracted a variety of volunteers from all age groups. Befrienders has worked closely with Montana State University in the past, providing work study opportunities for students and other forms of outreach. Yet the program’s volunteers consist of mothers and husbands, nurses and retirees.

“We have quite an even mix of age groups,” Stillman said. “We have eighteen-year-olds and seventy-year-olds. Many people just love this type of engagement.”

Volunteers are carefully matched with their elderly companions after submitting an application, undergoing training and a background check, and meeting individually with Stillman.

Matches are made based off of common interests and availability.Initially, Stillman checks in with matches on a weekly basis, and then less frequently as the relationship blossoms. Befrienders also hosts a continuing education series for volunteers, cultivating awareness of subjects such as dementia and elderly engagement. In the past year alone, the program has grown significantly.

“Most people do not realize what a large elderly population we have here in Bozeman, particularly those of the babyboomer generation,” Stillman noted. “Befrienders also supports this generation’s caregivers by providing a free service that benefits family members as well.”

The program is not without its particular challenges. Stillman refers to herself as “a one-woman show,” as she manages most everything with only the assistance of a volunteer board of directors, members of which have been supporting Befrienders for five to ten years. Stillman admitted the difficulty of managing the program on her own and effectively partitioning her time. However, she anticipates an increase in participants in the coming year, as well as potential new employees in program development. Stillman is also immensely appreciative of the program’s present partnerships, such as the location of the Befrienders office in the Senior Center. Many Bozeman senior care advocates continue to support Befrienders in various ways, indicating the immense personal and communal value of this particular companionship.

“Every volunteer and senior tells me the same thing: this program enables them to meet someone they would never have had the chance to meet. I go home every day with a full heart,” Stillman stated. “A lot of our community’s elderly individuals simply do not have anyone else in their lives. We are truly making such a difference.”

Prospective volunteers can visit Befrienders’ website www.befriendersbozeman.org   

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