GUILFORD—For some local elders, the isolation of rural living can be scary. For those with far-away adult children, busy relatives, or no family, who will provide rides to the doctor and arrange for home care? Who will bring in the groceries? Who will stave off loneliness?
In 2006, two local nurses, Susan and Richard Davis, founded Guilford Cares to help serve those needs. Its mission: “to provide free assistance to vulnerable community members to improve the quality and independence of their lives [through] wellness support, supplemental food, and opportunities for socializing."
Guilford Cares Executive Director Leah Gessner said the nonprofit organization has allowed more elderly residents to stay in their homes longer.
In Windham County, “most towns do not have good, or enough, senior housing,” said Gessner. For elderly residents, “it’s either figure out how to stay in your house or move out of town. A town you love. Even a move to Brattleboro is an unnerving prospect,” Gessner said.
Susan Davis’s original concept for Guilford Cares was “based on a nursing model, so there would be a nurse who could take up the slack from other institutions and agencies,” said Richard in a documentary film about Guilford Cares [youtu.be/iu-bK4IqJVA].
What he and his late wife had noticed, Richard said, was, “that people would get discharged from the hospital or home health agencies and there would be this gap, and they would kind of fall off the face of the earth."
Susan also organized programs to provide medical rides and loan out medical equipment, such as crutches, walkers, and wheelchairs.
“I still do equipment loans. My barn is filled with equipment,” Richard said, and added, “it used to be filled with goats."
A friend and an advisor
In the film, Tina Blust, the former Guilford Cares community nurse, described her role, “I pick up some of the loose ends needed to keep our neighbors with chronic illnesses safe and sound. I go to their homes, I address their concerns, and often, I help them set up systems to make sure they’re taking their medications consistently, and know how to monitor their own health status."
Blust added, “I serve as a friend and an advisor to help them get any extra services they might need” from Guilford Cares volunteers, or other agencies.
“We have neighbors helping neighbors,” said Gessner, who pointed out this is a traditional practice in rural towns. “But as new people move in and elders move out, how do you meet your neighbors?” she asked.
One way is to volunteer at Guilford Cares as a driver or a “Friendly Visitor.”
“We’ll help bring in groceries, take you to doctor’s visits, and at the doctor, we’ll go in with you as a second set of eyes and ears to help remember what medications to take and when, and make sure follow-up appointments are scheduled,” Gessner said.
Guilford Cares coordinates with the Community Health Team and case managers at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital to make sure seniors’ needs are met, Gessner said.
The “Friendly Visitor” program matches clients with volunteers for weekly visits. This not only gives an isolated elder beneficial social interactions, but makes sure all their needs are met, even beyond what Guilford Cares can do.
If the volunteer “perceives a problem that someone else should know about, they tell me and I follow up,” Gessner said.
Gessner gave an example. A client wanted to remain in her home, but her elderly sister was anxious about her ability to care for her.
Guilford Cares used a team approach, Gessner said. “We met at her house, with her, and helped her explore all the possibilities,” which included increasing home health aide visits. Through working with other community partners, “we just brainstormed with her, and we did this with her and not behind her back."
It allowed the woman to stay in her home for an additional year. “Then, through a lot of conversations, she made the decision on her own to go to a nursing home,” Gessner said.
Guilford Cares started a Wellness Program to keep seniors healthier longer, and “push back” against “the creeping isolation” aging can bring, Gessner said. One of the program’s activities is a twice-yearly guided walk on the Andrew Weeks Trail. A volunteer follows the group to make sure everyone can keep up — and carries chairs in case someone needs a rest.
Gessner recently began a Tai Chi class geared toward fall prevention. Senior Solutions sponsored Gessner’s training through a grant. “People come to this class and become healthier and don’t fall down and become isolated,” she said.
Helping one’s neighbors through the Cares system isn’t always contained by city limits.
Eight towns in Windham County have Cares organizations: Westminster, Putney, Dummerston, Marlboro, Grafton, Townshend, Guilford, and the Wilmington/Deerfield Valley area.
Gessner serves as the chair of the County Cares Board of Directors and coordinates the quarterly meetings. She said those meetings are not only enjoyable — because participants go around the table talking about new services they’ve added and clients they’ve helped — but they are also useful for sharing information and resources.
For example, not all Cares organizations in Windham County have medical equipment to loan out. When a resident in a town without medical supplies needs something, Cares coordinators can make a referral and get the client what they need, regardless of where they live.
“Windham County was a leader early on in the ’aging in place’” movement, Gessner said. “It came together in these different towns,” she added.
Beyond senior assistance
Guilford Cares’s work goes beyond senior assistance, too.
In January, 2011, the organization opened the Food Pantry at the Broad Brook Grange. Anyone of any age can participate, “and we do not turn anyone away, even those who live in other towns,” Gessner said.
“That started when we realized there was a tremendous amount of food insecurity in town, in a range from young families to the elderly,” Gessner said. “It’s become a huge project for us.”
In the first five years of operation, the pantry served over 155 households, said Director Pat Haine.
Last spring, Food Pantry staff helped create a smaller pantry at the Guilford Central School for students in need of supplemental food.
Now, Gessner said, 25 Food Pantry volunteers serve an average of 25 to 30 families each week. She noted Hannaford supermarket “is very supportive of the Food Pantry."
The pantry also provides full, prepared Thanksgiving meals, including “a whole turkey and all the fixings,” to clients who sign up ahead of time. And, year-round, volunteers will bring items from the pantry to home-bound clients when necessary, Gessner said.
David Gessner, Leah Gessner’s husband, said he was “shocked” when he learned about hunger in Windham County. In 2009, he began using his van to pick up items from the Food Bank, and every week, Leah said, “he schleps it into the Grange."
“There are certain things we have to do in life that are just important to do,” said David. “This is a community where everyone pitches in. Nobody will leave you on the side of the road [...] I don’t have to know who they are or what their circumstances are. I just know there are people out there who need some help.”
‘The gift of helping neighbors’
Although Guilford Cares volunteers help elderly residents with medical and social needs, the volunteers benefit, too.
“It’s been a wonderful experience for me, getting to know neighbors I may not otherwise have met,” said Anne Montgomery, who serves as board president and volunteers in the “Friendly Visitor” program.
Leah Gessner got involved in 2010, when she volunteered to be a “Friendly Visitor” to an elderly neighbor living alone in her house.
“The stories about her life in Guilford hooked me. I looked forward to the visits, while she appreciated having someone check in on her regularly,” Gessner said. “That activity opened my eyes and my heart to the value — actually, the gift — of helping neighbors,” she added.
“There are state and federal programs to help” elderly people, Gessner said, “but we take care of our own. We know what their needs are, and sometimes we use other programs, but we start at the bottom,” with volunteers who are also neighbors.
“What we do isn’t definable or quantifiable, and that’s an important point,” said Gessner, who added, “the real thing is the spirit and trust of having a local grass-roots organization present” in people’s lives.
“These people are part of the community,” Gessner said. “Everyone feels better knowing a person isn’t languishing alone somewhere."