WCAX: Donating time to keep older Vermonters company

BURLINGTON, VT (WCAX) – Now is the time of year when people are asked to donate their time, and volunteers are being recruited to spend time with older Vermonters.

Age Well’s “Friendly Visitor” program is when a volunteer visits an older Vermonter to simply hang out for an amount of time of the pair’s choosing a week. Age Well is based in Addison, Chittenden, Franklin, and Grand Isle counties.

There are more and more Vermonters requesting these services by the day, and as the winter months loom, Age Well is on the lookout for volunteers.

Phoenix Susken visits her friend, Don “Pappy” Sutton once a week in South Burlington. “I think it’s wonderful to be able to have the opportunity to sit and talk to somebody and that somebody responds, not like that window can talk to me,” Sutton said.

They spend their time swapping stories, eating food, and they’ve even visited Sutton’s former place of work — St. Michael’s College– where he founded the rescue program. But the duo’s favorite pastime? cribbage. “That’s been fun. In addition, I think you just learn and grow by just being with someone. You know, last time I was here I was telling him as I was leaving that I’m starting to really realize how similar him and I are,” Susken said.

She says she wanted to find a way to volunteer and get involved in the South Burlington community, so she became a friendly visitor volunteer with Age Well.

“Think that all you have to do is talk, and you learn an awful lot by just looking at a person and talking to them,” said Sutton.

But Susken says he’s helped her just as much. “It gives him a connection. It gives me a connection,” she said.

The group’s Tracey Shambeger says supporting older Vermonters in their homes can reduce social isolation, especially over the past few pandemic years. Right now she says there are 100 people who have requested friendly visitor volunteers and there have only been enough volunteers to fill less than half of what they need. “We know that our aging population is continuing to grow. I think it’s predicted in the next seven years that we’re going to grow up to, you know, perhaps 25% more older adults in the community. So as you can imagine, as more and more people are aging, more and more people are staying in their homes which we love, we need to wrap services around them,” Shamberger said.

Volunteers like Susken have a flexible schedule where they work with their new friends to find dates and times to come by. Shamberger says they haven’t had to waitlist any Vermonters yet but they are always looking for volunteers. “We don’t want to get to the place where we are having to put people on the waitlist because we know how important this social-connected connectedness is to people. And as I mentioned, the volunteers are saying they’re getting as much out of it as the people that they serve,” said Shamberger.

Age Well also has a Meals on Wheels program. Shamberger said they saw an increase of 26% to 40% of older Vermonters seeking services over the past few years.

By Melissa Cooney• Published November 18, 2022 

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