I was planning to do this week's blog on the proposed South Fork Regional Park near Acme, but that item is being pulled from the agenda so it will have to wait for a future blog.
Instead, I would like to talk about one of those really under recognized programs that the County helps fund - The Friendly Visitor Program. If our last meeting is any indication this program may be on the chopping block this week. At our last meeting Sam Crawford, joined by Ward Nelson and Kathy Kershner, tried to chop the funding for that outrageous waste of taxpayer dollars the Food Bank. Council member Crawford also supported chopping funding for the Volunteer Center, so I suspect that this weeks contract with the Northwest Regional Council to fund the Friendly Visitor program may also get called into question. In previous years Sam has pronounced that he doesn't think it is the job of County government to pay people to be other peoples friends through this program. Let's examine that sentiment a little bit.
The Friendly Visitor program is run by the Interfaith Coalition of churches and provides volunteers to check up on elderly people still living on their own. The County provides $20,000 toward the program to help pay part of the cost of the program volunteer coordination. In return, in 2009 over 1800 visits were made to isolated seniors throughout Whatcom County. This equates to over 2600 hours of volunteered time and over 19,000 miles of volunteered miles driven to ensure that these seniors are safe.
In 2003 the Northwest Regional Council (NWRC) conducted an intensive study of the needs of older adults and persons with disabilities in Whatcom, Skagit, Island, and San Juan counties. One of the findings of this study was that the single greatest un-met need of seniors living independently at home was loneliness and isolation. Friendly Visitors arose from a task force composed of Whatcom County agencies and organizations involved in senior services. Today Friendly Visitors is funded by the Interfaith Coalition and a $20,000 grant from Whatcom County.
In brief, Friendly Visitors recruits, trains, matches, and then supports volunteers to become visitors and friends to an isolated or lonely senior in their own home or apartment. Volunteers do not become caregivers but become a much-needed friend and connection to community resources for seniors who may need them. In some cases, the volunteers function as a “safety net” for some seniors who have no other contacts and whose health or other needs may go otherwise undetected and possibly become life-threatening. Matches visit in the homes, go out for coffee, go for walks or drives, or work on projects or hobbies together.
The positive impact on the senior community is not limited to the senior receiving the visits. More than 65% of the volunteers are over the age of 60 themselves. This means these senior volunteers are learning about common senior concerns and needs, available resources, and the importance of planning for their own future before they have a severe need.
Here are a few examples of how Friendly Visitor volunteers have helped seniors in Whatcom County:
1. During last January's cold spell a Friendly Visitor volunteer stops by to visit his 94-year-old friend who still lives at home alone despite some growing memory loss. He discovers his friend in a cold house with no heat, and no idea of how long it has been that way or what is wrong. Going down to check on the furnace, the volunteer discovers a foot of water in the basement. The volunteer notifies family contacts, brings back space heaters and continues to check in and make sure that the elderly man is warm and safe.
2. An elderly woman went outside and fell. She would have lain there a long time but for her Friendly Visitor coming to check on her.
3. An elderly woman living alone in Blaine has no one in her life other than her Friendly Visitor. Her volunteer visitor became concerned one day when the lady wouldn't answer the door or the phone. She called the police who went in and found the woman passed out.
4. Earlier this winter, when dropping in to meet a 95 year old man with some dementia who is, nevertheless, living at home alone, the Friendly Visitor Program Coordinator found the man with no heat in the house as well as rat droppings all over the floor and furniture.
5. An elderly woman living alone with no family nearby, and on the edge physically, emotionally and socially. There have been several emergency and semi-emergency situations where her Friendly Visitor has been the one to encounter the emergency. For example, the senior's refrigerator broke and all of the food spoiled, but she didn't call anyone. She continued to drink the spoiled milk because she was worried about her osteoporosis. Her volunteer found her, very ill, and called emergency services. The volunteer then went and purchased new food and arranged to have a new fridge installed. The volunteer has since convinced the senior to have the “First Alert” program (where they wear a necklace that has a button which, when pushed, will alert emergency services) and is on the service's list as the responder.
6. A Friendly Visitor visiting an elderly housebound friend noticed that the senior had lost a lot of weight, and a quick glance in the refrigerator showed an appalling lack of food. Coming back later with several quarts of homemade soup and a bag of groceries, the visitor began regular checking in with the senior on her grocery shopping needs.
7. And there are many other stories where, because isolated seniors were matched with Friendly Visitors, evidence of physical abuse, neglect, or growing dementia leading to unsafe living conditions was found. In each case, it was only because a Friendly Visitor was there that the situation was discovered, and a potential life-threatening emergency averted.
When money is tight in government it certainly makes sense to prioritize programs and make cuts before raising taxes. But good government doesn't cut things that put people at risk or harms the most vulnerable. Programs like the Friendly Visitor Program and the Food Bank form the basic safety net for people in need, especially in these hard times. If cuts need to be made these certainly are not the types of places we should be looking to cut first. Hopefully this contract will fly through on Tuesday with little or no desire to dissect it, just like much larger contracts to buy road equipment or consultants often fly through.
*************** UPDATE 2/10/2010 ************************
I am happy to report that at the Council meeting last night the contract for the Friendly Visitor Program was approved by a 6-1 vote with only Council member Sam Crawford voting against the program.
In an unexpected twist, started to some degree by this blog, an impromtu fundraiser for the program started within Sam Taylor's Politics blog on the Bellingham Herald. While a lively discussion about the pros and cons of government support for charities took place a friendly challenge led to a number of people pledging money for the program. After some scrambling the Herald agreed to collect donations for the Interfaith Coalition's Freindly Visitor Program until February 19th. As of the close of business today Sam Taylor reports $350 has been received. To keep track of this fundrasing effort, or better yet to learn how you too can donate (I'm already in for $50), click here to go to Sam's blog about it.