Benedictine enlists parish volunteers to keep seniors independent

March 15, 2011

Many years ago when her children were young, Lu Heiling's next-door neighbor in suburban Minnesota was an elderly woman who lived alone.

"She was like a grandma to our kids," says Heiling of the neighbor, who valued her independence but whom Heiling worried about, nonetheless. So the two women had a kind of code.

"She told me, 'When I get up in the morning, I always pull up my shade,"' recalls Heiling. "I got to watching for that shade." Later, when Heiling and her family were about to move, Heiling dreaded telling her elderly friend. Before she did, she found another neighbor who agreed to watch over the woman.

"She was able to stay in her house until she passed away," says Heiling.

Today, Heiling is in her mid-70s. She is still "watching for the shade." She does so now as a volunteer and advisory committee member in a project by the Benedictine Health Center at Innsbruck to help keep elderly people in their homes as long as possible. The long-term care facility in New Brighton, Minn., is part of Benedictine Health System. The system, which is based in Duluth, Minn., provides a full spectrum of long-term care services for frail seniors.

No job too small
Benedictine at Innsbruck is working with Heiling's parish, St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in New Brighton, a suburb of the Twin Cities, to identify elderly who need help to stay in their homes.

That help ranges from changing lightbulbs and washing laundry to providing transportation to doctors' offices, church and the grocery store, says Susan Ager, administrator of Benedictine at Innsbruck.

"A lot of times the kids aren't there anymore and (the elderly) don't have that support system," says Ager. Seniors may need help with home maintenance or writing checks and keeping records up to date.

The push for housing options other than traditional nursing homes comes not just from the elderly, but even more so from their baby boomer children, says Lowell Larson, president of the Benedictine Health System Foundation. The foundation awarded a two-year, $30,000 matching grant to Benedictine at Innsbruck to partner with St. John the Baptist parish on the elderly support project. For its part, the parish has provided a corps of volunteers to do tasks for frail seniors.

"Baby boomers now realize their mom or dad needs assistance, but they're running into all kinds of problems on how to (provide) that," Larson says. Volunteers can ease some of that burden.

Economic circumstance factors into decision making about elder care. "If people can stay at home and get the care they need, compared to getting that care in an institution, that saves money," Larson says.

Likely partners
Benedictine has many St. John parishioners living in its facilities, so it was natural to partner with the parish on the elderly project, says Ager. In the first year of the grant, a period that began in September 2009, Benedictine worked on developing relationships within the parish community.

About 150 elderly parishioners at St. John answered a questionnaire sent out by the project, and the responses gave organizers a good idea of services that would help elders to stay in their homes. Ager says transportation, home maintenance and having a dependable "friendly visitor" topped the list.

Benedictine at Innsbruck trained volunteers, put up a website and produced a program brochure. Ager says the project has served over 30 individuals in their homes, some on an episodic basis and some more frequently. At the present time, the program does not provide home health care. People who require professional services, such as health care, are referred to social service agencies or other providers.

Volunteers from the church school are available to perform routine chores such as fixing a dripping faucet. Confirmation candidates and Scouts from the parish school do simple tasks like yard work.

Ager says a parish nurse hired as project coordinator in September has been arranging weekly basic health care clinics at the church. The parish has hosted a few health education events too.

Mary Trisko sits on the project advisory committee. She's been a parish member for 45 years. She says there's a definite need for the elderly support project at St. John, which is a large parish and an aging one, like many others.

"We just have many people in that aging group who would like to maintain their independence as long as possible," says Trisko. "This is a wonderful opportunity for them to stay in their own homes and be semi-independent."

Combating isolation
Trisko and Heiling say there are many elderly who simply crave social contact and the reassurance that someone out there cares. "A lot of times, what would be important is just to have somebody call them once a day," says Heiling.

"I think that's a big issue, that people don't feel lonely," adds Trisko. "In our society, there may be a lot of people around, but we aren't connected."

Caring for people, physically, emotionally and spiritually is an important part of what the Benedictine Health System is about, says Ager. And the parish collaboration is expected to deliver in all these areas. "It's about giving people that ability to choose to be as independent as possible, and to be healthy," she says. "People do want that choice."

The grant expires this year, but Benedictine at Innsbruck is trying to design a sustainable business model to support the program, and Ager thinks it will continue. The advisory group is suggesting that elderly clients be asked to pay for services such as housecleaning. A benevolent fund could pay for services provided to individuals without financial means, Ager says.


Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3450.

Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.