New "One to One" Program Aims to Help Isolated CNY Seniors Make New Friends

Feb 13, 2019

From left to right, Danielle Gell, Director of Community Grantmaking at the CNYCF; Volunteer Melonie Unger; and Interfaith Works Senior Services Coordinator Toma Tracy.
Credit Scott Willis / WAER News

There is growing concern over the issue of loneliness and isolation among older Central New Yorkers living in nursing homes or other senior living communities.  An estimated 60 percent of them do not have regular visitors. That’s about 2,800 people in Onondaga County alone. 


But there’s a new program called One to One that aims to provide some companionship.   

Those who work in senior communities are very aware of the growing likelihood of isolation among residents.  Mary Gualtieri is director of independent living at The Nottingham, where the pilot program for one to one began about a year ago.

"With the changes in our society and with extended families living out of town or having very busy jobs, more and more seniors are becoming isolated just by virtue of geopgraphics sometimes or family dynamics."

Gualtieri says as people age, they naturally lose spouses, siblings, and friends who could pay a visit.  At the Nottingham, she says the recreation and lifestyle team works closely with residents to ensure they have a balanced social life. 

"When our team begins to see that there's somebody who is isolated, not necessarily because they want to be, you know there are some people that are introverts and they enjoy spending time alone and reading and things like that. But if there is somebody who truly appears that they don't have much family support or they've lost a lot of their friends who have passed away, then we try to reach out with programs such as One to One."

Melonie Unger is a volunteer with the One to One program who has been visiting Shirley, a resident at the Nottingham, once a week since last summer.  Unger has found that Shirley could really use the companionship.

"She's very isolated in her room. She has a vision problem so she doesn't like to go out and be involved in the activities. She would rather just stay in her room and when it comes time to go to dinner she gets very anxious. You can see it physically make her shake. So I try and distract her from that. We read, listen to music and look at pictures in her bird books. She was gardener; we look at flower pictures."

Unger says during her one hour visit, she might help Shirley retrieve phone messages from, or return calls to a son who lives in Massachusetts.  She'll also help with the TV remote and walk her to dinner.  She says another son in Marcellus visits on special occasions, and his wife takes Shirley to doctor’s appointments.  Here’s the interesting part:  Unger says it wasn’t long before she discovered that their pasts converged.

"Her husband was the head of the ski patrol at Toggenburg Ski Center and she taught skiing and that's where I learned to ski. She lived in Cazenovia and I grew up in Delphi Falls. She went to church in Oran and my mom's best friend went to church there. Well it turns out, she sat right next to her."

After her second visit, Unger says they felt like they were almost family.  It’s that interaction and relationship that Toma Tracy says is key to help older adults avoid the serious health implications of isolation.  She’s the Senior Services Coordinator at Interfaith Works, which received a grant to run the One to One program. 

"It will impact people's physical decline. It can contribute to mental health issues and it can also lead to premature death. So, it is not just that relationships are wonderful to have, but having these relationships are very essential to keeping people healthier as they age."

Tracy says they have seven volunteers making visits, and have trained 13.  Mary Gualtieri at The Nottingham says they’re trying to make more connections.

"Our lifestyles team has been, on a regular basis, providing names to Interfaith Works to match people up and we've had some newer matches happening. And our hope is now that they have a full-time volunteer coordinator so that we can continue to grow the program."

Gualtieri says the volunteers she’s talked to say the visits have made a difference in their lives. Volunteer Melonie Unger tears up when she thinks about how fulfilling it is.

"They have so much to teach us. And we can learn such wonderful things that we can't learn from all of our electronic things and it is important that they feel validated. I have several people that, since they heard about it, want to apply too because to see the difference that you can make in someone's life and it changes you too. It's just wonderful."

The Central New York Community Foundation provided a $30,000 grant to support the One to One program.  More information is available at interfaithworkscny.org.