PHOTOS Agencies helping home-bound seniors struggle to find volunteer drivers

Belva Padgett, left, of Naples, a volunteer with the Dr. Piper Center for Social Services, helps Bill Blackney, III, right, also of Naples, grocery shop at Publix  supermarket in Naples. Padgett volunteers to help around a half dozen residents in the Goodlette Arms apartment complex go to the grocery store and hair salon, attend their medical appointments and tackle other daily chores throughout the week.  Local nonprofits in southwest Florida have been paralyzed by volunteer shortages and struggle to meet the growing demand of needs seniors who have limited mobility. Tristan Spinski/Staff

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Belva Padgett, left, of Naples, a volunteer with the Dr. Piper Center for Social Services, helps Bill Blackney, III, right, also of Naples, grocery shop at Publix supermarket in Naples. Padgett volunteers to help around a half dozen residents in the Goodlette Arms apartment complex go to the grocery store and hair salon, attend their medical appointments and tackle other daily chores throughout the week. Local nonprofits in southwest Florida have been paralyzed by volunteer shortages and struggle to meet the growing demand of needs seniors who have limited mobility. Tristan Spinski/Staff

Nearly a dozen Southwest Florida senior citizen service providers, including nonprofits, churches and for-profit businesses, agreed that growing numbers of low-income elderly people are becoming more isolated as transportation and companionship services grasp for volunteers.

— It took the death of a friend to make Norman Schreiber think about his own legacy.

While attending a funeral several years ago in Boca Raton, Schreiber listened as his deceased friend’s two sons delivered eulogies that celebrated their father’s life. The man had owned several nightclubs and was a financial success. He gave back to his community. He was a devoted husband and father.

“A big macher” or “big shot,” said Schreiber, 69, of North Fort Myers.

“I thought: ‘God. What will they say about me? Here’s Norman. Open and shut the coffin,’” Schreiber said.

So Schreiber and his wife, Adrienne, decided to spend their time with home-bound senior citizens.

Last year, they met Beverly McLaughlin, 80, of North Fort Myers, through the Lee County Senior Friendship Centers ­­— a nonprofit dedicated to improving the quality of life for elderly people.

Now they run errands together, go out for breakfast, even take McLaughlin’s cat to the vet. They give McLaughlin mobility and companionship in a world that is difficult to navigate when you’re 80, partially deaf and have a difficult time walking.

While McLaughlin has a success story, she is one of the lucky few. Throughout Southwest Florida, nonprofits that help the elderly find themselves in a volunteer crisis.

Nearly a dozen Southwest Florida senior citizen service providers, including nonprofits, churches and for-profit businesses, agreed that growing numbers of low-income elderly people are becoming more isolated as transportation and companionship services grasp for volunteers.

Nancy Green-Irwin, executive director of the Senior Friendship Center in Fort Myers, said her organization has more than 600 people on a waiting list for its services.

“There are a lot of great services, but it doesn’t even scratch the need,” said Sarah Owen, chief executive of Community Cooperative Ministries in Fort Myers.

Green-Irwin said the recent closing of Faith in Action, a transportation-providing subsidiary of Community Cooperative Ministries in Fort Myers, has compounded an already overwhelming need for volunteers. Because the Senior Friendship Center is a multifaceted senior service provider and doesn’t specialize in transportation specifically, people who just need rides are put at the bottom of the waiting list.

Sarah Owen, chief executive of Community Cooperative Ministries in Fort Myers, which used to operate Faith in Action, said her organization had to cancel its transportation program several months ago because it couldn’t obtain liability insurance.

Owen said the organization now has moved to a “facilitative role” in which it refers senior citizens who need rides to other providers in the area.

“There are a lot of great services, but it doesn’t even scratch the need,” Owen said.

And the widening void of transportation options, Owen said, affects people’s independence, dignity and health.

According to Owen, elderly people become at-risk when nobody checks up on them regularly. This degrades the quality of life — an extra day without grocery shopping, the house falling into disrepair and not addressing problems until they become emergencies.

These issues are difficult to address because home-bound seniors are hidden behind closed doors, Owen said. It’s not like driving past a soup kitchen and seeing a line of people in need of help, she said.

The “neighbors helping neighbors” dynamic is what makes these volunteer programs so valuable, as opposed to the elderly relying solely on public transportation, Owen said.

Though public transportation options seem like the remedy for nonprofit volunteer shortages, waiting at the bus stop can deter frail senior citizens, co-payments for door-to-door service can add up, and traversing the bureaucracy of Medicaid and other government programs can be demoralizing. This process can be so frustrating that many seniors give up and retreat into seclusion.

Though public transportation options seem like the remedy for nonprofit volunteer shortages, waiting at the bus stop can deter frail senior citizens, co-payments for door-to-door service can add up, and traversing the bureaucracy of Medicaid and other government programs can be demoralizing.

Gary Bryant, president and CEO of Good Wheels, a nonprofit organization in Fort Myers that provides transportation to people who can’t provide service for themselves, said his company’s budget depends on state and federal funding and already is operating at capacity of serving 500 clients a day.

“There’s a tremendous need for our services and the funding doesn’t match the demand,” Bryant said.

Bryant said he wishes he could find 50 volunteers to free up his 50 paid drivers, so that 50 more people in need would be able to use his service. But in the case of Good Wheels, Bryant said, dependable volunteers have been difficult, if not impossible, to find.

Jonnie Eason, the senior companionship director of the Dr. Ella Piper Center based in Fort Myers, a nonprofit that caters to the needs of low-income elderly people in six counties throughout Southwest Florida, said her organization is in desperate need of volunteers to give seniors companionship and mobility.

Eason pointed to Belva Padgett, a 75-year-old volunteer with the Dr. Piper Center who lives in Goodlette Arms, an affordable housing community for senior citizens in Naples.

Padgett helps five clients through the Dr. Piper Center – giving them rides to the grocery store, the hair salon and medical appointments. She also shops for several home-bound residents in the complex who are too sick to venture out.

“I moved here to a little, one-bedroom. There wasn’t anything to do,” Padgett said. “You can’t clean all day. I like to be around people … I love people.”

Padgett said that volunteering to help her friends and neighbors allows them to maintain a certain degree of independence and gives her something productive to do with her day.

Margarette Rice, 77, who lives in the same apartment complex as Padgett, said that after nine strokes and an ongoing battle with diabetes, she depends on Padgett weekly to get to medical appointments and for grocery shopping.

“She’s my guardian angel,” Rice said about Padgett. “A person like me would be lost without her.”

Back in North Fort Myers, Martha Scott, 74, a retired caregiver and neighbor of McLaughlin, said that her friend is lucky to have found companionship with the Schreibers.

Scott used to secure transportation through Faith in Action and praised the organization for the help it gave her.

“It’s demeaning,” said Martha Scott, 74, a retired caregiver. “You feel like you’re begging. And no senior should feel like they’re begging.”

“They had heart,” Scott said.

It wasn’t just the transportation, Scott said, it also was friendships that developed between clients and volunteers. One of the volunteers used to sit with her for hours as she received medication injections into her eyes to slow her encroaching blindness.

The volunteer, she said, had the same condition, only in much earlier stages.

In a way, they helped each other through the ordeal, Scott said.

Scott now depends on an electric cart to get around. It can be scary, she said, because she is blind in one eye and losing sight in the other.

The worst part, she said, is “not being able to see the traffic coming at you so you’re not too sure when you’re crossing the street.”

When it comes to venturing farther out, Scott said, she feels like she’s being a nuisance to have to ask friends and neighbors for a ride.

“It’s demeaning,” Scott said. “You feel like you’re begging. And no senior should feel like they’re begging.”

And this is what bothers Scott the most — elderly people who have lived full lives, raised families, fought wars — being stripped of their dignity as they scrounge for scraps of independence.

She points to the bigger issue of a general disregard for elderly people and their value to society.

“It leaves us feeling worthless when we can’t find a ride … even to the grocery store,” Scott said.

© 2010 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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