From Tech Support to Weekly Phone Calls, Volunteers Help Seniors Thrive

By: Sarah Papperman, Service Manager for Wesley Family Services

Like many of our seniors, Mary Alice lived on her own for years and feared what she would do once she could no longer take care of herself. She was reluctant to try new things and meet new people, but thanks to programs for seniors funded by United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, she found a lifelong friend who ended every visit with a hug and a heartfelt, “I love you.”

Through Wesley Family Services in Allegheny and Westmoreland Counties, programs supported by United Way provide neighborly services and companionship for adults who are sixty and older. The volunteers we train make social visits, do grocery shopping, provide transportation to medical appointments, run errands, complete basic home safety inspections and more.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an especially large impact on older adults. Many of our participants recognized that they and their peers were at highest risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19 and wanted to protect themselves by staying at home, but at the same time they struggled to access basic necessities like food. Most of our folks are not able to order food online, and those with mobility limitations and health conditions may have trouble waiting in lines at stores. Seeing the impact on seniors, we quickly pivoted our services to focus on providing safe access to food and exploring how we can help seniors improve their access to technology and their digital literacy. And for many seniors, this has made a world of difference.

Services are needed now more than ever.

In the last year alone, we’ve seen nearly 300 trained volunteers take action to connect with and support the lives of 926 seniors. Be it through food pantry deliveries or making weekly check-in calls, these tasks do so much to improve the quality of life and lift the spirit of seniors.

When we first met sixty-nine-year-old Donna, she was watching the news with dread as COVID-19 entered our world and changed all of our lives. She already needed food assistance and relied on her neighbors to help with grocery shopping, but now her neighbors were also not leaving the house and she didn’t know where to turn. After learning about the senior programs United Way funds at Wesley Family Services, Donna was quickly enrolled and received a contactless food pantry delivery the same weekend.

Technology assistance has become a top priority.

As much of life’s activities are moving online – whether ordering groceries or making a video call to friends and family – some seniors have struggled. With support from United Way, Wesley Family Services is surveying participants to learn more about their technology access and needs, and how our programs can continue to grow and provide support.

Thanks to a partnership between United Way and the tech company Civic Champs, a web application called ‘Helping Hands’ is in development to provide a platform for volunteers to track new opportunities and for seniors and their families to make requests for help. Through other partnerships, our services and volunteers have helped seniors without computer or internet access get COVID-19 vaccines, in addition to providing transportation to their appointments, and have helped seniors with devices break digital barriers by providing assistance with technology and teaching seniors digital literacy to become more independent.

Being a volunteer is not a transactional relationship.

Often, volunteering is a way to feel a deeper connection to the community and to make a meaningful difference, while gaining new friendships. We’ve seen volunteers discover common interests and continue these friendships for years.

One volunteer found that the senior he was matched with also had a passion for fishing, but struggled to get out to his local fishing hole. Now, they’re fishing buddies and have built a bond that has surpassed the volunteer program.

The relationship between volunteer and senior is special. A common refrain from our participants is that they find great comfort knowing someone cares about them and is there each week.  Volunteers may discover they’ve found a role model, mentor or friend. During the pandemic, these relationships have been a lifeline for seniors both physically and emotionally. But even when life gets back to normal, there will always be a need to support our older neighbors.

When you volunteer with a senior, we can promise you’re making a difference in two lives – yours and the seniors. Join this journey and become a volunteer today.

Together with United Way and Wesley Family Services, we can provide these vital services to seniors. If you’d like to volunteer, call 412-345-7420 in Allegheny County or 724-205-6282 in Westmoreland County.