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Polishing the golden years

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Nancy Abrahamson said the oldest care receiver in the St. Croix County Faith In Action/Interfaith program is 106. The oldest volunteer caregiver is 95.

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She said the program keeps about 150 volunteers busy helping about 150 care receivers throughout the county.

Abrahamson, who organizes helpers and services, says more volunteers are needed.

"Anyone can be successful at it," she said. "It just takes heart and sharing."

Faith in Action, interchangeably called Interfaith, helps people 60-plus years of age. Caregivers might stop by with a meal, do some laundry or just call and chat.

Abrahamson sees various people volunteering to help: Professors, retirees, homemakers, students. They all help one or many seniors maintain their independence and often, dignity.

She said volunteers specify what they can do, for how long and at what time of day.

Abrahamson said, "My big message to volunteers is that you can say no."

A county employee working for five years in the Aging and Disability Resource Center, Abrahamson matches volunteers with people who need help. Donations and volunteer power fuel the program except for 12 hours a week of Abrahamson's time for which the county pays.

She says Interfaith is flexible. One man volunteered to do in-home visitation but found he wasn't much of a talker so instead, he switched to driving services.

A widow had put her house up for sale because she could no longer maintain the yard. A volunteer noticed, asked about it, then found more helpers, enabling her to stay in her home.

Abrahamson said some matches work out better than she could hope. She always has the two people speak via telephone first and accompanies the volunteer for their first in-home visit.

One man committed to helping another man in his home. Within minutes, the men figured out they were both prisoners of war from the same era and had lived in the same small part of Ohio.

"It was instant bonding," Abrahamson said.

Volunteers often tell Abrahamson that they get more out of the activities than the care receiver.

Local volunteer shares

Retiree Jane Jeffrey has volunteered for Interfaith for a year. She said her most recent trip involved taking a person home from a day-away program. They laughed all the way.

"I, for the most part, drive people who need to get to therapy, dialysis...," she said, adding that in 2008, she drove 2,800 miles for Interfaith.

"I was shocked!" said Abrahamson. It didn't seem like that many.

Jeffrey said she hasn't met any care receivers she hasn't enjoyed.

Jeffrey goes as far as the Twin Cities, and Woodbury and Stillwater in Minnesota, and as nearby as River Falls. She usually goes out once or twice a week, sometimes filling in for others who can't make it.

The local woman said she's tried many other kinds of volunteer work but this one agrees with her. She enjoys the people and says they have interesting lives and stories.

"It's fun just talking with them...," she said. "I have never, ever not been glad that I drove somebody."

Jeffrey says the work, which she found through a newspaper ad, is fulfilling. People always appreciate what Interfaith volunteers do.

Needs arise

Volunteer activities might be driving someone to doctor appointments or day programs, stopping to check on someone, doing light housework, helping with administrative duties, providing a break for other care givers, shopping for groceries, running errands, calling a person to see how they're doing and monitor health and other needs, giving help with outside chores like mowing and shoveling, and delivering meals.

Abrahamson said, "Sometimes people just need someone to check in and make sure they're doing OK."

The program learns of need from people calling the ADRC, family members calling about the Interfaith program, hospital discharge personnel, former volunteers, current clients, ministers, neighbors and the media.

Abrahamson said the down economy affects need. She's seen a 25% increase in demand for services the past year.

Interfaith gets some support from the United Way. Abrahamson keeps track of volunteer hours so she has solid figures for grant applications.

She said people are often surprised to learn that a volunteer hour is valued at $19.51.

Volunteers gave to Interfaith about $69,000 worth of services in 2008. A 12-member volunteer advisory board runs the organization on an annual budget of $17,000.

She emphasizes that Interfaith is non-denominational but works with several churches. Abrahamson said the 12-year-old Interfaith occasionally collaborates with other counties but mostly serves St. Croix County. Pierce County does not have an Interfaith program.

Abrahamson said fate brought her to this work. Before ADRC, she worked as a discharge planner at a large hospital, a home care program manager and dementia-unit supervisor.

"I've been interested in serving people all my life," she said. "My parents were very good role models for that," adding that she really enjoys working with people in their own home.

She encourages all potential volunteers, donors and care receivers to contact her if they have interest in St. Croix County's Interfaith program: Nancy Abrahamson at 1-800-372-2333 or 381-4360 or nancysa@co.saint-croix.wi.us.

"I think the most difficult thing to me is waiting for volunteers," Abrahamson said.

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