Story last updated at 4:29 p.m. Thursday, June 20, 2002

Volunteer-visitor program helps bridge age gap
by Carey James
Staff Writer

photo: news
  Photo by Carey James, Homer News
Lisa Thomas, volunteer Monical Morterud, Bertha Glud and Morterud's daughter Vanessa Emery share one of many laughs during a weekly visit.  
It's obvious within minutes of meeting 80-years-young Bertha Glud that she's always been the life of the party. Surrounded by balloons and flowers from her recent birthday, which she describes as "a party that couldn't quit," the lifelong Alaskan is happy to talk about her adventurous past with anyone who asks.

Thanks to a volunteer outreach program run by Hospice of Homer, Bertha has a few more visitors to share those stories with at the Fern Ridge TLC assisted living center. Monica Morterud and her 14-year-old daughter Vanessa Emery have been visiting Bertha every week since February, doling out foot rubs, pictures and arguably Bertha's favorite, laughter.

"I think it's a good deal," Bertha said. "I look forward to the two of them coming every week."

Morterud said she was inspired to start visiting the elderly because she had some time and thought it would be an interesting way to connect with the community's earlier settlers. While some visitors play cards, help with paperwork or other tasks, Morterud decided her special skill was giving foot rubs to Bertha and the other senior she visits.

"When they see me coming with my bottle (of foot massage cream,) they smile," she said with a laugh.

But while Bertha gets sweet feet, Morterud and Emery say they receive much more than they give from the weekly dates.

"It's a chance for me to interact with the old pioneers," said Morterud. "It just brightens my day"

For Emery, the time is equally rewarding.

"I think more youth should get involved with this," she said. "They might not think they would like it at first, but they will. Some of us don't have grandparents, so it's like having adopted grandparents."

Emery said Bertha has shared stories about her life when she was a teenager, and has surprised the teen several times by understanding what she was thinking despite the 66-year gap in age.

"It's a cool thing to hear about the experiences they had," Emery said.

According to Lisa Thomas, volunteer coordinator with Hospice of Homer, studies back up the enthusiasm of Emery, Morterud and Bertha about the benefits of the visits. She said intergenerational interaction is proven to be extremely beneficial for the elderly.

Thomas said in Alaska especially, where families are often separated by many miles, the volunteers provide a vital interaction for older folks, whether it's lending a helping hand or just a listening ear once in a while. Thomas said people might be surprised how little time it takes to make a big difference in someone's life. Volunteers might choose to visit only once or twice a month, and may be teamed up with someone else to provide more consistent visits to a person. In some cases, as little as 15 minutes breaks up the monotony of a home-bound person's day, without leaving them exhausted. Even talking to someone on the phone once a week can be helpful, Thomas said.

While many might relate Hospice of Homer to dealing with end-of-life issues, the volunteer visitor program works with people in all stages of life, Thomas said. Volunteers can contact Hospice of Homer to discuss their available time and interests in the program, and will be paired up with someone with similar needs and interests. If the person the volunteer will be visiting has particular ailments, those will be discussed as well.

Morterud said one of the people she visits has dementia, but said she spends time just listening to her friend, and is sure it is appreciated.

"At the end, she'll say thank you with all her heart, and I'm sure she knew I paid attention," Morterud said. "It doesn't hurt to hold still and listen. It's easy."

Thomas said the volunteer visitor program is a good opportunity for anyone with a bit of extra time who can "act from the heart."

While Hospice of Homer offers a helping hand connecting volunteers and those in need of visits, Thomas said she encourages people to connect with the elderly in their community whether through the program or not.

"It's all about neighbors taking care of neighbors," she said.

Anyone interested in participating in the program can contact Thomas at 235-6899.