“Now I Have a Friend”

by Richard M. Romney

Editorial Associate

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    She wasn’t really her grandmother, but that didn’t matter to Sue Baker. The woman finally felt close enough to ask her for a favor.

    “I have a parcel that needs to be wrapped,” the older lady said with a smile, propping herself up on her rest home bed. Sue, eager to help, asked if the package was going to be mailed somewhere.

    “No, it’s not going to be sent off. But I need you to get some tissue paper, ribbon, and a card …”

    Sue asked a few more questions. She needed to know the size of the package in order to purchase the correct amount of paper, and she wanted to be sure to select an appropriate color.

    “Can you tell me what it is?” she said. “It might help me to know what I need to get for you, what kind of card, that sort of thing.”

    The elderly woman decided she couldn’t keep her secret any longer. She pulled the package out from behind her pillow, handed it to Sue, and said, “Here. It’s for you. Pick out a card you like.”

    It’s hard for Sue to tell the story without crying. When she opened the box later, she found inside some embroidery she had admired. A few weeks before, her grandmotherly friend had said it was “the most precious thing” she owned.

    Sue, whose home is in La Crescenta, California, is just one of more than 60 BYU students who participate in the Adopt-a-Grandparent program (AAG) sponsored by the Student Community Services office. Coordinating their efforts through a central bureau, the students work with Provo rest homes and private individuals in an effort to battle loneliness in the lives of elderly area residents.

    “I felt good about the program when I first heard about it,” said Jan Henrie of Idaho Falls. “One of the greatest things about it is that you bring joy into their lives by visiting with them. But the joy that comes back to you is much more than you would get by doing something for yourself. It helps you see what a great thing service really is, not just for the person you do something for, but for yourself as well.”

    The elderly participants are as excited about the once-a-week (minimum) visits as the students are. “For several years, the Y has sent somebody down here who has the time to help me make my deliveries,” said Fred Davis, an “adopted grandfather” who sells shoes. “The other day, Mike (Mike Allred, who’s working with Fred this year) took me over to deliver some in Springville. We sold a couple of pairs, and I got the chance to talk to him. He doesn’t mind helping me. I’m blind in one eye, and I like to have him describe what we’re passing.”

    On the days they know visitors are coming, rest home residents sometimes get so eager they line up out in the halls, according to Sheryl Sanders of Boise, Idaho, AAG’s assistant director. “If it hadn’t been for the program,” Helen Strong, one elderly sister, emphasizes, “life would have meant nothing to me. Now, I have a friend. I feel good about having her come.”

    Julie Melville, of San Jose, California, directs the Adopt-a-Grandparent service. She explains that students who wish to participate must be willing to donate at least an hour each week for six months to visit their special friend. A screening committee interviews applicants to orient them to the program and explain the commitment necessary to do a good job. Glen Hale, from Murray, Utah, the orientation and training director for the staff, meets with each new volunteer and discusses likes, needs, and tips for getting along with his elderly friend. Then the visits begin, along with a weekly progress report to a supervisor, who can offer help or refer problems to qualified authorities.

    “They matched me with Albina Felker,” Jan said. “As I’ve come to visit her every week, I’ve also become acquainted with her roommate, Wanda Roper. Albina is always cheerful, tells me stories about her life, and gives me good advice. She’s 94 but active. She walks outside every day. She tells me about how she’s never smoked or drunk, how she’s done things to keep herself healthy. She also loves to talk about her family.” When Sister Felker isn’t in, Jan will spend a few minutes with Sister Roper. “I’ve worked with young people all my life, and I still enjoy it,” Sister Roper said.

    “Some of the people we visit have so much to say, but no one to say it to,” Sue added. “I know it means a lot to my special friend just to be able to talk. I’ve got a great relationship with my grandparents back home, and leaving them was hard. Having someone up here who more or less is ‘family’ means a lot to me. But when I first met my friend I felt I had something to overcome. I talked with her for about 90 minutes, and a couple of days later came back. She couldn’t remember who I was. The next week I went back, and she still didn’t remember me. I finally started calling her every day and talking to her. I wouldn’t tell her who it was; I’d make her guess. Then she started saying, ‘Oh, I’ve been looking forward to your call all day.’

    “About three weeks ago she said, ‘Why don’t you give me your phone number so I can call you sometime?’ It was when she actually phoned me that I got excited. She called the other night. My roommate said, ‘I think it’s your grandmother.’ I got on the phone and said, ‘Grandma?’ She said, ‘Yes, it’s me. I’ve got something exciting to share with you,’ and told me that a group of children had just come by with a basket of fruit and a card. That meant a lot to me. I feel like I’ve overcome the problem of her not knowing who I am.” Sue obviously won her heart. She’s the same elderly lady mentioned at the beginning of this story, the one who asked Sue to help her wrap a present and then gave the present to Sue.

    Many of the students said they became involved with Adopt-a-Grandparent in about the same way Sharon Pritchett of Atlanta, Georgia, did. “Julie had been praying about finding people who wanted to get involved, and I had been feeling lonely and praying for ways to get to know new people,” Sharon said. The two met on their way to a religion class they had together, and after class Julie invited Sharon to a staff meeting the same day. Soon Sharon was publicity chairman for AAG.

    The volunteers also said they felt their leaders had been inspired in matching them with particular elderly participants. “The Lord guides us a lot in what we do,” Julie said. “You wouldn’t believe the backgrounds of these people,” another supervisor added. “One man used to catch broncs by the tail and then train them. Another was born in Czechoslovakia and was a concert pianist. Now he’s paralyzed in one hand, but he still plays. His name is Rudy.” The supervisor also said it’s a goal of the program to place volunteers and participants with similar interests together. One fellow watches football games each Saturday with the gentlemen from a rest home. A young lady is learning how to crochet. Others work on sewing, knitting, and lapidary (making jewelry from rocks) projects with their elderly friends.

    Kathleen Koch, of Carbondale, Illinois, often discusses genealogy with Alberta Campbell, her special friend. They spent one day together watching a general conference session, eating lunch, and visiting with Sister Campbell’s friends in other rooms of the convalescent center.

    “My friend has been to college. Even more important, she doesn’t want to be treated like a baby,” Karen Critchfield of Los Altos, California, said. “We were both nervous to start with, but now we confide in one another.”

    Besides visiting their elderly friends, the students meet on their own at least once a month for a fireside and often have social gatherings. Wendy Ius of Trail, British Columbia, said fireside speakers are usually experts in social work, psychology, or human relations. The meetings help group members feel like a team, sharpen their skill in dealing with others, and provide a time for sharing ideas and experiences. A periodically published newsletter also helps to unite the group.

    From time to time special activities are held at the rest home, especially on holidays. “We had a home evening a little while ago,” Karen said, “at which she (Sister Strong) bore her testimony. It was really uplifting. We had my entire home evening group out here, and she spoke about relying on the Lord.”

    Linda Barr, of Brunswick, Georgia, said AAG “makes you more concerned because you find out how lonely some people are, what little joy they have, how they feel they’re not worth anything. You want to make them feel better. And it makes you feel better to think you’re important to them.”

    “Just because they’re old doesn’t mean they’re not people. They’re up-to-date, not living in the ’20s. The person inside will be the same, now or later on,” Julie said.

    And Sharon Wendell, of Bountiful, Utah, added, “They have lots to offer, unless people forget them.” Colette Johnson, of Boise, Idaho, commented, “It’s hard to know if I’ve changed because of the program. It was so great to start out with, how could it get any better?”

    Perhaps one of the most poignant stories, however, was related by Peggy Buchanan, of Waynesboro, Virginia, as she described her first visit to the rest home: “I went to visit Edna. She was in bed and kind of sick. I had a picture of a lily mounted on matboard, with a poem on the back. I was going to read the poem and give her the picture. She didn’t respond much, so I decided to talk to her instead. I asked her if she liked flowers. She said yes and started talking a bit. She is a great lady, and she brought out something in me. I told her about my grandmother’s flowers, and she listened while I shared parts of my life with her, which was very rewarding. Then she fell asleep, and I left. Outside the door, a woman in a wheelchair asked me to pick up her blanket and tuck it in. She cuddled up and snuggled back in her chair and was happy. I got to see about five ladies that day and helped them all. As I was leaving, I went down the back hall and asked if I could visit anybody else. I started to go, when someone called out to me and said to please come in. She reached her hand out and said, ‘Please don’t leave. We love you.’”

    Peggy said, “I love you, too,” and spent several more minutes chatting with the woman. As she left, Peggy knew “that lady was happy, and that it meant a lot to her to have people visit.” She also knew that despite the pressures of school, dating, and work, she had found friends and would find time to come back often.

    Illustrated by Mark Stephens

    Photos by Eldon Linschoten