Helping seniors age with dignity, independence

Neighbor Network relies on volunteers to provide range of free services

Posted 7/3/17

JoAnna Halda says no one expects bad things to happen in life, but they do.

The 75-year-old from Franktown was diagnosed with ALS in October — a hard adjustment for a woman who’d been active her entire life. Halda had run several businesses …

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Helping seniors age with dignity, independence

Neighbor Network relies on volunteers to provide range of free services

Posted

JoAnna Halda says no one expects bad things to happen in life, but they do.

The 75-year-old from Franktown was diagnosed with ALS in October — a hard adjustment for a woman who’d been active her entire life. Halda had run several businesses and served on five boards, all while caring for her ill husband, Charles.

To make things harder, Halda’s diagnosis came roughly a month after her husband of 52 years had died from his 17-year battle with cancer.

“Now all of a sudden, I can’t do anything. It’s just very, very difficult to accept life’s challenges sometimes,” she said. “Each and every night when you head to beddy-bye and you’ve had a blessed day and you’ve been able to do what you want to and you look up and see the sky, say ‘thank you.’”

But Halda found some desperately needed support when a friend referred her to an organization called Neighbor Network.

Neighbor Network is a nonprofit organization serving Douglas County, which seeks to help the area’s seniors remain in their homes and stay independent. The organization offers a variety of free services, such as transportation assistance, handyman or housework assistance and care management.

For Halda, the organization has meant rides to the doctor, rides to visit her husband when he was in special care and having extra help around the house, all of which she says would have been much harder to organize without the nonprofit’s help.

The network began as a county-grant-funded initiative in 1998 but gained its independent status in 2013, although it maintains a close relationship with the county, executive director Karie Erickson said.

Since 1998, the organization has watched what Erickson calls explosive growth in the need for Neighbor Network’s services. The group receives approximately 1,500 calls a month for various assistance and give an average 600 rides a month to seniors, many with serious conditions like Halda, who can no longer drive themselves. In July, the network expects to hit 700 rides.

It’s a far cry from their early years, Erickson said, when the program received an average of 200 calls a month and would frequently dissipate if grant money waned, then resurface if funding again became available.

To an extent, she credits today’s larger client base to the organization’s broader name recognition, but also to a growing senior population. County officials project one in four Douglas County residents will be 60 years or older by 2030.

The growth would continue a trend of recent years.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that in 2016, about 16 percent of the county’s population was 60 years or older, Douglas County demographic analyst Nancy Gedeon said in an email. That number was up from the 11 percent reported in the 2010 Census.

Transportation help needed

Erickson said the county’s seniors most frequently request help with transportation, whether it’s to reach the grocery store or make a medical appointment.

Dale Ferg, the Neighbor Network transportation manager, said that by buying a second van in January, Neighbor Network is now capable of offering more rides and has seen a growth in transportation services within the past year.

“Within 48 hours of having a van, and this is no exaggeration, it was completely booked with dialysis rides,” Ferg said.

Kelsey Thiessen, a care manager with Neighbor Network, helps direct client services and works with the organization’s partners, such as the faith-based community. She coordinates with local churches to secure volunteers at events like a spring yard cleanup for seniors and a dinner during the fall in which churches cook a homemade meal for seniors who live in isolation or do not have access to nutritious food.

Thiessen said many of the clients call to Neighbor Network when they have run out of options, explaining seniors are often emotional when they hear a live person pick up the phone. As an example, she can recall a phone call she received from one man who was losing his ability to afford food and needed help getting to a food bank.

“He called literally in tears, at the end of his rope,” Thiessen said. “He lives in Larkspur. He was losing his eyesight and could no longer work in construction part-time. He’s in his 70s but he is still working.”

Many clients call because they do not have friends or family living nearby, or fear they are a burden to those around them, Thiessen said. The process of aging is not just difficult emotionally and mentally, but also logistically, if seniors don’t have a strong support system.

“It can be really tough. We get lots of tears,” Erickson said. “When you were once very capable and independent, you get in the car and go to the store when you want to go, and now all of a sudden you lose your eyesight.”

Volunteers crucial

While Neighbor Network staff say their services make a real difference for seniors, they also say it’s not possible without their volunteer base. The organization has a staff of six people but most services are provided through the help of volunteers.

Lori O’Day, the volunteer and communications manager, said their 130 volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds, from nurses to teachers to construction workers. Their goal is to grow that volunteer base to 150 this year, in order to serve their more than 300 clients.

“We could definitely use more than that too,” she said, noting that Parker is a specific area in need of volunteers.

Everyone working with the organization undergoes a background check and must provide references, O’Day said. They also send volunteers through training before connecting them with seniors.

“We’re working with a vulnerable population and we want to make sure people are qualified or safe for our clients,” she said, adding that the volunteer workload is flexible. “It’s very open. We don’t have any minimum hours that people have to volunteer. It’s really whatever works for people’s schedule.”

O’Day said Neighbor Network allows volunteers to make lasting relationships with those they help, and feel good about giving back. For Erickson, the organization is ultimately there to help seniors maintain a high quality of life.

“I want seniors to know,” Erickson said, ”that we’re here because our mission is to promote aging with independence and dignity.”

Halda said it’s difficult to express the difference Neighbor Network staff and volunteers have made in her life, and the lives of other seniors.

She simply knows that she is grateful.

“I’ve been sent,” Halda said, choking up, “a lot of angels.”

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