Karen (R) with one of her CheckMates friends.

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KAREN SMITH

A unique friendship built by a simple phone call a week

“I’ve had a good life and wanted to give back. Now, I get more out of it than I give.”

Karen has always worked full-time since graduating from high school. After retiring six years ago, she wanted to give back to the community, so she began volunteering. CheckMates, a program of AgeWell Pittsburgh, and a United Way Open Your Heart to a Senior partner agency, offers a connection between older adult volunteers and older adults in our community who may be homebound, isolated or lonely.

Since she began, Karen has been calling between eight and ten older adults once a week. Their calls last 20-30 minutes — sometimes longer depending on where their conversation takes them. Both Karen and her CheckMates friends look forward to the weekly calls.

Each person has his or her own story to tell. “My friends’ need someone to talk with, and they appreciate that someone is listening to them. They share stories and I really get to know them. As much as I help them, I also learn from them,” Karen shared.

On some weeks, Karen might be the only call the older adults receive all week, making her volunteer work all the more meaningful and important. “They often confide in me, and tell me things that they might not share with their family,” said Karen. CheckMates provides an opportunity to identify older adults who may be at risk or in need of services to help them remain independent. Volunteers are trained to recognize individual needs and may contact the CheckMates Coordinator, who will connect the older adult to appropriate services.

Karen has developed a special relationship with one of her CheckMates friends. They share stories and even watch their favorite television show together while on the phone. “We always laugh together,” Karen said with a smile. “I can tell she was a hot number when she was young! And she likes to reminisce about when she was young. You just have to love her.”

Karen was hoping to bridge the gap between full-time work and retirement, and she encourages others to do the same. Reflecting on her experience, Karen shared, “More people should do this – I hear that people who volunteer their time live longer!”

Later this year, in partnership with AgeWell, South Hills Interfaith Movement (SHIM) and Jefferson Regional Foundation, United Way’s Open Your Heart to a Senior will expand the CheckMates program into communities South of Pittsburgh. For more information and to sign up as a volunteer, visit https://volunteer.uwswpa.org/Open-your-heart.