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Volunteer program creates intergenerational bonds to help seniors feel less lonely

To celebrate Denise Baron’s birthday, she and Maggie George went bowling and had some chocolate cheesecake.
Olivia Weitz
Yellowstone Public Radio
To celebrate Denise Baron’s birthday, she and Maggie George went bowling and had some chocolate cheesecake.

A nonprofit is combating loneliness that many senior citizens experience. The Befrienders program matches elderly Gallatin Valley residents with younger community volunteers to do things like go on walks, play games, and get out into the community.

Close to half of people over 65-years old regularly experience loneliness, according to researchers with the University of California San Francisco.

Befrienders Executive Director Kristin VanDeWalle says the volunteer match program wants to change that locally because loneliness can negatively impact health and well-being. A recent report found that loneliness can be as harmful to your health as smoking about a dozen cigarettes per day.

“How the program works is we ask volunteers if they can commit to meeting a senior at least an hour a week for a year,” she said.

VanDeWalle says while most seniors in the program are living independently at home the organization is looking to match more seniors at the Gallatin Rest home. Seniors fill out an application listing their needs and are paired with volunteers who have common interests.

For the past six months, volunteer Maggie George has been spending time with Denise Baron. Since then, they’ve visited every bakery in town and gone bowling, among other outings.

“We usually just go for a drive. I'll bring her over by the Bridgers or on the way to Big Sky and just drive toward the mountains and sing together. I just see how she lights up when we’re in the mountains,” she said.

George says seeing Denise happy during their time together has brought her joy. Part of why she joined the program was to learn from people who have lived in the community longer than she has.

“There’s so many seniors who have lived in Bozeman their whole life and then there’s a lot of new people coming in like myself. I think it's great to learn from people who have lived here their whole lives, and it’s great to hear about what Montana is, it kind of broadens my perspective just coming in, she said.

VanDeWalle says the intergenerational bonds that the program fosters also has benefits for the larger Gallatin Valley community.

“Our seniors have the benefit of feeling more connected and having a higher self worth and overall being healthier. I think when you start looking at benefits to both the seniors and the volunteers and also getting out in the community it makes our whole community healthier and more vibrant when you have these connections,” she said.

The Befrienders program is currently seeking volunteers to match with 23 Gallatin Valley seniors who are seeking friendship and community connections. There are currently 70 matches in the program. The organization is hoping to match more than 100 seniors this year.

Olivia Weitz covers Bozeman and surrounding communities in Southwest Montana for Yellowstone Public Radio. She has reported for Northwest News Network and Boise State Public Radio and previously worked at a daily print newspaper. She is a graduate of the University of Puget Sound and the Transom Story Workshop.