Companionship can often feel like an afterthought when you get swept into the whirlpool of life. As we age, the need for endless conversation and friendly laughs grows with each year and making friends is all the more difficult.
But, imagine needing a companion while being an elder person a part of a marginalized community. This year, 34% of adults between the ages of 50 and 80 reported feeling isolated, and LGBTQ+ elders are twice as likely to live alone.
Luckily, the Friendly Visitor Program is actively seeking a solution. The program is a collaboration between SAGE: Advocacy and Services for LGBTQ+ Elders, the South Florida Institute on Aging, and the Our Fund Foundation. Originating 40 years ago in New York City, the program found its way here in 2019.
A Challenging Start Leads to a Promising Future
Throughout the past couple of years, we’ve seen how the COVID-19 pandemic affected many local businesses and organizations, and the Friendly Visitor Program was no exception. Though Mitchell Zahn has just recently stepped into the role of program coordinator, the challenges of the Friendly Visitor Program were not completely unknown to him.
“When the pandemic hit, volunteers could no longer visit their participants, they relied on telephone support,” Zahn said. The program like many others struggled to evolve along with the forced isolation. Zhan shared, “Ultimately, the program was terminated because it was too difficult to bring in new participants because generally, you need to visit them to get them established in the program.”
Luckily, the Friendly Visitor Program had a saving grace when its private funder went to SAGE to ask them to reconsider keeping the program open. Upon hearing what they had to say, SAGE brought Zahn onto the program, “There was nothing left of the old program, so everything had to be re-established,” Zahn said. Re-released in April 2022, the program has made a total of 25 matches, surpassing their funder’s expected 20.
Helping the Community One Talk at a Time
The heart of the program comes from the nonprofit organization, SAGE. The organization provides services and advocacy for LGBTQ+ identifying elders. Being a facet of SAGE, the Friendly Visitor Program upholds its same values.
Providing social support for those that are isolated, lonely, or grieving, the Friendly Visitor Program matches participants with volunteers to help these elders find the fun back into life. Through conversation, volunteers give participants a source to vent their feelings and they are always available to help them process their emotions.
Volunteers Making a Difference
The Friendly Visitor Program wouldn’t be what it is without its volunteers. With their kindness and conversations, they’re able to provide support to many of the participants who have not experienced it in years. Currently, there are 25 volunteers in the program, all of which share qualities that ensure the participants are getting the help they deserve.
Volunteers need to be dedicated, good listeners, have a sense of humor, and have the ability to probe and bring out what’s exciting to their participants. Their time together is spent in a variety of ways, some take walks or indulge in simple conversation, while others provide technology support like helping operate TV remotes or sharing a meal in participants’ homes.
Though matches are typically made by finding those with similar interests and hobbies as the participants, they have had unusual matches. There have been a few cases where a match didn’t work and the chemistry was misread, but when that happens the process is restarted.
The program is home to many success stories and new connections are happening every day. “I just met an older man who lost his husband two years ago, who was still actively grieving and I was able to connect him with another participant who went through a similar experience a few years earlier so that they can talk and give them the resources in the community that’s available,” Zahn says.
Getting Volunteer Ready
The process is simple, volunteers complete the application online, and after the application is submitted the applicant is interviewed by Zahn. He will get to know the applicant to get a better sense of who they are.
Training is five hours and includes a presentation with information about SAGE, and statistics about the LGBTQ+ community. In their training, they learn how to be good listeners through role plays of difficult conversations and self-care skills.“It’s important that our volunteers are available for their participants. If they feel good they’ll feel motivated,” says Zahn.
After training, volunteers go through a criminal background check. Zahn then looks for proof of COVID vaccination and the participants waiting to be matched with a volunteer. Once Zahn finds a good match, he provides the volunteer with a narrative on the participant. Once they have verified that they approve of the volunteer their information is exchanged and they meet.
Zahn is attentive and checks on the participant once a month to ensure that the match is good, “Those small intents and connections between people are what this program is about.”
A Friendly Future
The Friendly Visitor Program is completely funded by the Our Fund Foundation located in Miami-Dade, but is seeking additional funding for a care management program to provide additional assistance the program can’t currently offer such as housing assistance. Zahn says, “I would love to get a care management program off the ground, I think that would really solidify our impact on this community.”
Zahn believes in the program and all it has to offer, “The Friendly Visitor Program is a great great service, we have incredible volunteers, we have incredible participants, and I really would welcome the Oakland Park Community to take advantage of the service”. The program welcomes anyone looking to volunteer or participate, and if you or someone you know may benefit from their services, take a chance of them.
“I would like to serve more people, I think there’s a huge community out there that would benefit from the service, but people are reluctant to ask for help. It’s really hard to find the people that could benefit because they’re not outside. I have to find opportunities to let them know about the program,” Zahn completes.
If you’re interested in becoming a participant or a volunteer in the Friendly Visitor Program, please visit https://sageserves.org/florida-programs/.