Senior companions: Volunteers curb loneliness of aging adults

Want to get involved? Contact Andrea Lang at 1-800-450-1510. ***** A lot has changed for 89-year-old LaVern Morlock this last year. After her husband of more than 68 years passed away, she moved from their farm near Gackle into the Jamestown Cour...

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Want to get involved? Contact Andrea Lang at 1-800-450-1510.


A lot has changed for 89-year-old LaVern Morlock this last year.

After her husband of more than 68 years passed away, she moved from their farm near Gackle into the Jamestown Court Rowhomes.

"It's quite a change in one year," Morlock said. "We were out on the farm until my husband passed away."


Morlock has slowly settled into a new routine. She still wakes early enough to do farm chores, but instead of farm chores, she eats breakfast and takes a nap. An alarm is set to make sure she wakes up from her nap in time for the "Chapel of the Air" radio broadcast she calls "Rev. McCoy's." After that, she reads the newspaper and calls "Gackle people so I know what's going on in Gackle." A meal is delivered to her around 11 a.m. In the afternoon, she might clean house, tend to her plants and flowers, watch the passers-by or have coffee with "the neighbor ladies."

"I always have something to do, it seems," Morlock said. But, she admits, "there were times" this last year when she felt lonely.

Her occasional loneliness has been eased in recent months, however, by weekly visits from DeAnna Hardtke, a local volunteer with a senior companionship program run by Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota.

'These programs work'

Hardtke is one of a handful of volunteers in Jamestown who participate in the senior companionship programs run by Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota.

The programs match volunteer companions with seniors who have been identified as "lonely, homebound, isolated or disabled," said Andrea Lang, coordinator of LSSND's Senior Companions and Volunteer Companions programs.

LSSND runs two separate programs: the Senior Companions program for volunteers age 55 or older that follows a "seniors helping seniors" approach, and the Volunteer Companions program for all other volunteers age 18 or older. Both programs have prescreening requirements and offer travel reimbursement for volunteers.

"The services are the same, it's just the volunteer eligibility requirements that are different," Lang said.


Both programs share the same goals - to provide companionship, foster friendship and social connection and help seniors live independently, Lang said.

"What we know about loneliness, especially in later life, is that it leads to depression and increases mortality rates, people pass sooner," Lang said. "But these programs work.

"The majority of those that we're serving are able to live independently at home, they're more satisfied with life, more able to do the things that they want and need to do, and they're less lonely and isolated."

Last year, eight volunteer companions spent approximately 3,500 volunteer hours visiting with 52 senior clients in Barnes, LaMoure, Stutsman and Dickey counties, Lang reported. LSSND hopes to increase those numbers to address the needs of Jamestown and the surrounding rural area.

"We want to expand the program in Jamestown," Lang said. "With it being such a rural state, there's definitely a lot of isolation here. You can count on that."

"You'd be surprised how many people have no relatives in town," Hardtke said.

'All sorts of things'

When Hardtke and Morlock get together, they prefer "to visit" and play board games.


"She likes to win," Hardtke joked.

But volunteers participate in many different kinds of activities with their senior companions. Some activities are for enjoyment - like putting together puzzles, planting flowers, going on walks or out for a drive when it's nice out. Others are more practical - like picking up groceries, being the extra hand to change a bed sheet, sorting out junk mail or fixing things.

"The other day her shower curtain fell off," said Loretta Birdeno, a Jamestown volunteer, referring to her 91-year-old senior companion Alice Swanson. "We hung it back up."

"It's still up," Swanson said with a grin, adding that Birdeno "does all sorts of things."

"I was not used to, what I call, the new-fangled washing machines," Swanson said. "So Loretta has been in charge of the washing machine. Once in a while I'll do it myself, it's getting easier."

Having an extra set of eyes to check in on aging parents is a comfort to adult children, said Morlock's daughter, Gloria Netz.

Netz said she and some of her siblings live in the Jamestown area and visit their mother as much as they can, but they have busy lives, too.

"We're not always around, so it's kind of nice to have someone who's not related to come in and check on mom," Netz said. "She looks forward to the visits."

'You're not alone'

Like Morlock, Swanson is adjusting to living in town. She grew up in Jamestown, but moved to a nearby farm when she married her husband. When her husband passed away 11 years ago, she continued to live by herself on the farm.

"She was always out there at the burn barrel burning something, or putting wood in the wood stove or doing something," Birdeno said, recalling when she first started visiting Swanson at her farm.

"I miss that burn barrel," Swanson said emphatically. "They do have a good collection for garbage here, but I am so used to not having to collect garbage."

Three years ago, Swanson moved into an apartment at the Legacy Center in Jamestown.

"I thought, 'Well, I won't have any problem, I grew up in town,'" Swanson said. "But it was a very long time ago. Things change. It's hard to get used to people all over the place."

Swanson's adult children live out of state so she considers Birdeno's weekly visits "a great help." Just having someone to talk to eases a lot of her worries, she said.

"It's so easy to get going into this one rut in my brain," said Swanson, sitting in a room so quiet that the hum of electricity could be heard running to a nearby machine. "But then Loretta comes and when I hear her opinion about something, then I think of it in a broader sense."

Hearing that, Birdeno placed her hand on Swanson's arm and said, "You're not alone."

Birdeno and Swanson both feel that they have benefited from LSSND's senior companionship program.

"I feel that it's a very good program," Swanson said. "I'm glad Loretta became part of my life."

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