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Ending elder isolation

Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly gives San Francisco’s seniors a new lease on life

By Katie Morell

It’s a sunny weekday in July and friends Fannie Clarke, sporting streaks of pink in her hair, and Katy Bailey, wearing a navy polka dot dress, are laughing and reminiscing like old friends while sitting on the couch in Clarke’s downtown apartment.

“Remember when we went on the hot air balloon ride in Napa?” Bailey asks with a twinkle in her eye. “That was the craziest day.”

“Are you kidding me?” answers Clarke, laughing. “You were scared out of your mind, but not as scared as when we went on the high-powered rocket boat ride on the San Francisco Bay!”

Both double over in stiches as endearing looks and unsaid inside jokes pass between them. “Let’s just say, we have a lot of fun together,” Bailey finally gets out.

From an outsider’s perspective, the pair are unlikely friends, especially when it comes to their ages: Clarke is 88 years old; Bailey just 33. They met in January 2014 when Bailey volunteered to visit Clarke on her birthday as part of a program through Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly. She brought her a strawberry milkshake and a lifelong friendship was born. Since then, the pair sees each other regularly; they often go to the opera, on day trips, walk around the neighborhood and talk on the phone when Bailey is out of town.

Their story is a common one among volunteers and elders active with Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly. Launched in 1990 in San Francisco, the nonprofit, which started in France during the 1940s and has locations across America, works to end loneliness and isolation among the city’s elderly population—a population that consists of more than 25,000 who live alone.

The mission of the charity is beautifully simple: to develop reciprocal friendships across generations. When a one-on-one match is made, the program asks volunteers to visit a specific elder at least twice per month.

“We offer in-home visits every other month and on birthdays and holidays,” says Executive Director Cathy Michalec. “We also have one-off social gatherings where you can volunteer, social excursions, a medical escort program and a new program called ‘tech allies’ where we give a senior an iPad and pair them with a volunteer who can teach them how to get on the internet.”

Elders are referred to the program through a variety of channels, including social workers, doctors, family members who live far away and can’t visit, neighbors and concerned friends. The program is free to all elders regardless of socioeconomic status, and many involved suffer from less than two social visits per month prior to signing up for the program.

“Isolation kills; it is equivalent to smoking 17 cigarettes a day,” Michalec says. “It can cause your body to break down, and it can be especially bad after you retire, your friends start to die and you are homebound and can’t go up and down the stairs in your own home. It is easy to feel like the world has isolated you.”

Volunteers must be 18 or accompanied by an adult (some entire families volunteer on holidays and birthdays), and background-checked. The organization provides volunteer orientations every six weeks.

Back at Clarke’s apartment, Bailey explains how much she loves volunteering with Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly. “I was on Wheel of Fortune last year and Pat Sajak asked me to talk about one really meaningful thing in my life, and I talked about Little Brothers,” she says. “I’ve gotten so much more out of it than I ever put in. It is one of the highlights of my life.”

Clarke smiles in response and piles on the compliments for those involved with the organization. “For someone to give his or her time, especially on a holiday, just to spend with me,” she says, “that is the ultimate goodness. It warms my heart.” 

Do you know an elder who could benefit from this program? Call 415-771-7957 or go to www.littlebrotherssf.org.

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