Social Security retirement, Medicare and Medicaid are national programs that help senior citizens in many ways. Still, we live locally, and massive social changes have cut cords that held families and communities together. Without these networks, people with problems fall through cracks.
Fortunately, help often comes from unexpected sources.
An article in the Statesboro Herald on March 27 reported that the Statesboro Kiwanis Club had contributed to an important local service for seniors, the Senior Companion program. A more recent story told of how a Georgia Southern student had taught a resident at Willow Pond how to "surf the Net" on a personal computer. A great idea, and here's another - how about "computer cafes" for seniors in such places as the Senior Center, the Honey Bowen building and other convenient locations? Schools, businesses, professional offices and individuals could contribute their used computers when they upgrade to newer equipment. There is enough computer savvy around to put the machines in good working order and teach interested seniors how to use them.
Between these two news stories was a television report by Dal Canady, regional bureau chief for WTOC, on the Altamaha Ambassadors. These retired Georgia Power employees build wheelchair access ramps for handicapped people so that they can get into and out of their homes. Being able to continue to live in their homes is very important for most seniors. When this group designs and builds a ramp, the recipient pays only the cost of materials. Well, they pay if they can. Otherwise the ambassadors find a way. The Altamaha Ambassadors operate mostly in Toombs County, but this sounds like a service worth considering elsewhere, perhaps projects by homebuilders associations, students from Georgia Southern's construction engineering program or relevant classes from Ogeechee Tech.
Local Boy Scouts have been doing outstanding work cleaning and fixing up local cemeteries that no longer have anyone to look after them. In some cases, there are elderly survivors who simply cannot do the work or hire the help needed to take care of the graves of their families. Maybe some Scouts also would be interested in building wheelchair ramps or teaching computer literacy.
Some churches have senior ministries, even ministers to seniors on staff. That is commendable and appropriate given the fact that seniors provide much of the volunteer work and financial support for many churches. Often these ministries focus on excursions and other "fun" activities. There is nothing wrong with this, but the homebound and disabled are not served. An organized, ongoing ministry to seniors rather than for them could and should be part of the life of every church. One valuable service could be telephone reassurance, which is a network or networks of people who call at-risk members at a set time daily to find out if there are needs or problems. It offers the possibility of help when needed and breaks through the wall of isolation that surrounds many elders.
Statesboro's churches are not doing nothing for the elderly. Some have special funds to help with emergency needs or special problems. Ministers cooperate and communicate to reach out to those in need. None of this is specially focused upon or limited to seniors, but they are certainly included.
The Hearts and Hands Clinic, which provides some basic medical services for those who do not qualify for any other access to care, has seniors among those whom it serves. Staffed by volunteer health care professionals and others and financed by gifts from various individuals and organizations - mostly local - it reaches those without medical insurance, Medicare or Medicaid, providing the most basic dental, vision and other medical assistance. How can any older person not have access through either Medicare or Medicaid? Well, for decades, many categories of working people were not covered by Social Security, thus are not now eligible for Medicare. Some do not know how to become eligible for welfare, thus Medicaid. It is not as easy as some people think. The good news is that caring people are doing something right here and right now at this clinic.
Statesboro is well served by personal care facilities and rehabilitation centers (aka nursing homes). The former are often well liked by clients but require considerable personal resources. Routinization of daily life is necessary, and that does not appeal to everyone. Such close scheduling is even more necessary in facilities serving people with long-term, serious health problems. Assistance from family, churches and any other groups who care enough to help is needed and welcome.
The message is clear: Volunteers can re-create community. If they have ability and imagination, they can work wonders in the lives of older people. Oh, and yes - the more they invest themselves in the lives of older people, the more they learn and find themselves enriched.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.