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Volunteers help bring elderly out of isolation

The universe may be expanding, but Nessie Dolcourt's world is getting smaller all the time; has shrunk, in fact, to an arm chair in a small room.

Across from the chair is the dresser, the surface of which is covered with photographs of her children and their children and now their children. "I leave the pictures there so when I get up in the middle of the night I can say, 'I'm not alone,' " says Nessie.She's not complaining, just stating the obvious: When you're 86, other people's lives are busier than your own. When you're 86 and all of your seven siblings and your husband are dead, and your children and their children have their own lives to lead, and your friends (the ones who are still alive) live in another town, and you yourself are tethered to an oxygen tank, you can sometimes feel like the world is spinning along without you.

It is this kind of isolation among the frail elderly that motivates Faith in Action. A coalition of 19 congregations in the Salt Lake Valley, Faith in Action mobilizes and trains volunteers, then pairs them up with old people in need. The program is funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and is coordinated by Jewish Family Services and LifeCare, an affiliate of the Community Services Council.

Although Faith in Action volunteers may help with small repairs, may help bring in groceries or write letters, it's their role as "friendly visitors" that is most appreciated, say those who work with the elderly.

"There are people who, during the course of a day, see only their Meals on Wheels driver," says Kristi Johnson, director of LifeCare. There are old people who call 911 just to have someone to chat with.

Isolation, notes Carol Einhorn of Jewish Family Services, can lead to confusion and depression. The isolated elderly, she says, often stop eating.

There are degrees of isolation, of course. But even those elderly who have family here can long for someone else to talk to, says Carol Held, project coordi nator of Faith in Action.

The Faith in Action volunteer can provide a social visit, compared to the nuts-and-bolts kind of visits family members often provide. While Joyce Dolcourt helps her mother-in-law with shopping, bill-paying and trips to the doctor, she knows that Nessie looks forward to her weekly visit from Faith in Action volunteer Susan Nerlove.

"We're into problem-solving mode," says Joyce about her weekly visits to see her mother-in-law. Susan's visits, on the other hand, are purely about friendship, an exchange of stories and advice and comfort. For Susan, all Nessie's stories are new. For Susan, there's not the peevish baggage that sometimes comes with a long-standing family relationship.

"I wish she were my sister," Nessie says about Susan. "She's nicer to me than my sisters were. I love her so much."

Although Faith in Action will accept both volunteers and elderly who belong to no religious congregation, to date most of the program's 35 volunteers come from area churches and synagogues. These include Calvary Baptist, Mt. Tabor Lutheran, Zion Lutheran, St. Matthew's Lutheran, St. Catherine's Newman Center, St. Ambrose, St. Therese, Rocky Mountain Conference of the United Methodist Church, six wards in the LDS Granite Stake, Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox, Holladay United Church of Christ, First Unitarian, Congregation Chavurah B'Yachad and Congregation Kol Ami.

Some congregations, such as Kol Ami, already had a volunteer group in place before the launching of Faith in Action in the spring of 1998. Faith in Action provides extensive training for volunteers, and helps hook up volunteers with elderly people who may be in a different congregation, or in no congregation at all.

"We are to be little Christs to one another," says the Rev. Steve Klemz, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church, quoting Martin Luther. "The gospel, the good news, is not simply John 3:16. It's: What does that person need that will mean that good news for them? If they're lonely or isolated or on a limited income, what is the good news for them?"

And the spiritual benefits go both ways, says Dolly Germundson, a member of Mt. Tabor Lutheran Church and a Faith in Action volunteer since last fall. "I know I'm doing the job God has asked me to do," she says of her weekly visits to Betty Ann Shaughnessy.

On a recent afternoon, Dolly picked Betty up at her apartment and took her for a stroll around Trolley Square. They smelled the lotions at the Bath and Body Shop. They admired the nature photographs at Wild Earth Images, and Betty reminisced about working at Zion National Park when she was a teenager. Later they giggled as they loaded up a basket with sugarfree sweets at the Candy Barrel. But it was in the car, on the drive to Trolley, that perhaps the most important exchange took place.

Betty, a former psychologist and a Senior Companion herself until a stroke last summer in her bathtub, is a cheerful woman. But sometimes she is saddened by how important she used to be to other people and how that all has changed.

Maybe she should have just died in that tub, Betty says to Dolly as they drive along.

"They say everything happens for a reason," Dolly answers.

"But then I wouldn't be a nuisance," Betty says.

"But you wouldn't be a joy for me to laugh with either," Dolly reminds her.

There are now over 1,200 Faith in Action projects in the United States. In Utah there are three projects, all funded by start-up grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Anyone interested in volunteering for the Faith In Action elderly project can contact Carol Held at 978-2452.

A second Faith in Action group operates in conjunction with the Rocky Mountain Hospice in Bountiful. For information about volunteering and training, contact Vicki Pluta at 397-4902. A third Faith in Action group works with AIDS patients. For information, call First Baptist Church, 582-4921.