Making that Connection

InterFaith Works’ One to One program offers friendship for nursing home residents

By Mary Beth Roach

For Melonie Unger, her weekly chats with Shirley Beckeman at The Nottingham senior citizen facility are almost like visiting her grandmother.

For Beckeman, knowing that Unger is coming is comforting and always cheers her up.

The two talk about the good old days in the Cazenovia-Delphi Falls area, mutual friends and acquaintances, and flowers. A master gardener in her day, Beckeman has already made recommendations to Unger for her garden once spring arrives, based on some catalogs the pair pored through during one recent visit.

“It just changes my whole day when she visits me,” Beckeman said. “We spend the time laughing, talking about birds, gardening and wonderful memories.”

But just several short months ago, the two didn’t even know each other.

They met and became fast friends through the One to One program, offered by InterFaith Works of Central New York, which pairs volunteers to senior citizens living in area nursing homes.

The organization recently received a $30,000 grant from the Central New York Community Foundation to enable it to continue to run the program for three years. The program should be sustainable within that time frame.

The initiative is “our effort at InterFaith Works to combat loneliness and isolation that we know many nursing home residents experience,” said Toma Tracy, senior services coordinator for the agency. Based on James Street in Syracuse, InterFaith Works has worked in senior services for more than 30 years. But in the past, it has mostly focused on connecting volunteers with people living independently.

One to One started last July, following a pilot program the previous year.

Through research and a great understanding of the community, Tracy said, the staff at InterFaith Works has seen an increase in population at nursing homes but a decline in those who visit them.

Changes in society and family life contribute to this situation, Tracy said. Children often move away from their hometown; divorces can leave people alone as they age; and families no longer live in multi-generational homes, so there’s less family connection and support, she explained.

“We wanted to make a difference,” she said. “We decided we would take a very direct approach to loneliness by connecting a volunteer with a nursing home resident.”

Instant match

Over the past few months, Unger has come to realize that she and Beckeman have more in common than she could have imagined.

For example, she would learn that Beckeman had been an instructor at the same ski resort where Unger had learned the sport, and that Beckeman attended the same church as Unger’s mother’s best friend.

Sometimes the two even talk about farming, since Beckeman grew up in Cazenovia and Unger was raised in neighboring Delphi Falls.

“It’s a blessing to you, just as much as it is a blessing to the person you’re visiting,” Unger said.

The experience, too, can make volunteers appreciate what they have at this point in their lives, she pointed out.

Seeing the potential benefits of the program, the Community Foundation was interested in becoming involved, according to Danielle Gill, director of its community grant-making.

“As the elderly population grows, more and more studies are coming out talking about the isolation and the loneliness, and the effects that that has on individuals both mentally and physically,” she said. “And so, when we saw what InterFaith was looking to do, we were really impressed with the need that they were addressing, but also the way in which they were addressing it. It’s a program that’s making a big difference.”

Unger is one of about 10 volunteers in the program, but InterFaith Works is planning to expand to approximately 70 volunteers, according to Tracy.

Prospective volunteers are invited to meet with Tracy for about 30 minutes, during which time she learns more about them and assesses their interests in order to make a better match with a senior companion. A background check is also done.

It is important that volunteers can make a long-term commitment to the program and be able to schedule their visits at the same time and day each week, so as to provide continuity for their senior friend and establish a good rapport.

If those potential volunteers are a fit, they are invited to attend a two-hour training session, where they learn more specifics about the program. In-service training is also scheduled quarterly, Tracy said, in order to continue to support volunteers.

InterFaith Works will accommodate, to the best of its ability, requests from family members who aren’t able to visit loved ones in a nursing home.

For those wishing to volunteer or seeking to perhaps arrange for a weekly visit for a friend or family member, contact Tracy at 315-449-3552, ext. 203 or email