Waltham Volunteer Organization Focuses on Socially Isolated Older Adults

For many, the loss of independence is one of the most distressing aspects of aging. The prospect of having to move out of one’s home, or to rely on strangers for help with personal tasks, raises financial worries as well as fundamental concerns about privacy and autonomy. 

Paradoxically, many older adults who remain in their homes, either through good luck, force of will or economic necessity, may be accelerating their own loss of independence. Living alone can hasten physical and cognitive decline by depriving people of the benefits of social interaction. A high number of people over the age of 65 who live alone admit that they feel socially isolated or lonely.

There are immediate benefits of being socially connected, such as improved confidence, a sense of belonging, expanded horizons and access to different perspectives. Researchers believe that these unique features of companionship translate to better health in older age and can stave off dementia, heart disease and early mortality.

“Loneliness is a condition that can actually lead to more hospital visits,” says Nancy Mulvihill, President and CEO of Neighbors Who Care, a non-profit volunteer organization based in Waltham. “It’s a serious health risk for our elders. There are a lot of sobering statistics out there.”

Researchers from Brigham Young University recently completed a lengthy analysis of over 70 studies from over three decades, examining the effects of social isolation. Their findings, published this past spring in the peer-reviewed journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, showed a 30% increase in mortality among the lonely or socially isolated. The report also found that social isolation was as serious a threat to health as smoking and obesity.

Neighbors Who Care (NWC) is directly addressing the problem of social isolation in the older adult population. NWC recruits community volunteers to spend time with the most vulnerable and socially isolated adults in the Greater Waltham area. Sister Dorothy Cooper, former Superior of the Grey Nuns in Massachusetts, founded NWC in 2003. Their mission, “to serve the unmet needs of seniors and chronically ill older adults in the spirit of St. Marguerite d’Youville,” is alive, well, and expanding today, under the current leadership of Director Martha Ryan and CEO/President Nancy Mulvihill.

Currently, NWC serves over 60 clients in the Greater Waltham area, including the cities of Waltham, Newton, Watertown and Lexington. Their service model relies on recruiting volunteers who are interested in spending time with an older adult on a regular basis – typically about an hour a week. Volunteers, often themselves in their sixties, seventies and beyond, help with daily tasks like grocery shopping and transportation to medical appointments. While these services are highly valuable to clients, they are also springboards for meaningful relationships to grow. In addition to “chores,” volunteers and clients are likely to go out for ice cream, play a board game together, or simply share stories.

“Sister Dorothy founded NWC 11 years ago,” says Mulvihill. “We’re really expanding because there is such a great, growing need. We are always in need of more volunteers. The need in this often overlooked population is great.”

An impressive 100% of NWC volunteers reported in a survey that their relationships with clients were positive, rewarding, and ranked among their best volunteer experiences.

Formerly Vice President of Corporate Communications for Covenant Health, Mulvihill is uniquely positioned to keep NWC true to the spirit of Marguerite d’Youville and the Grey Nuns (Covenant Health has been managing the Grey Nuns’ health and elder care organizations for nearly two decades). She has established an ongoing partnership with Youville Assisted Living Residences, who have provided space in Lexington for fundraising events as well as volunteers and clients. NWC volunteers and clients have an open invitation to spend Christmas with the residents of Youville Place, providing them with another venue for community and social engagement.

NWC estimates that in total, the work their volunteers are doing saves approximately $3.7 million per year in assisted living or nursing home fees. The services provided combine practical, emotional and spiritual support. In the spirit of St. Marguerite d’Youville and the Grey Nuns, NWC is interfaith, promoting the diverse needs of all clients and volunteers. You need only be interested in making a difference in someone’s life to get involved.

For additional information, visit www.neighborswhocare.net to fill out a volunteer form online,

email info@neighborswhocare.net with inquiries, or call 781-893-1860.

Living In The Present: A Spiritual Perspective on Dementia

By Maria Benoit, M.A. BCC

Director of Mission and Pastoral Care, Youville Assisted Living


As a Chaplain I find that our loved ones with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia have a lot to teach us about finding spirituality in simple moments.

People with Alzheimer’s disease lose many of their memories and develop challenging behavioral issues. They can become easily frustrated and family caregivers often have difficulty adjusting to an array of unpredictable emotions. Frustration mounts when caregivers themselves have unrealistic expectations for communicating with a loved one with Alzheimer’s.

A useful approach to connecting with a person at this stage involves letting go of the past and positioning oneself in the present. In order to do this, family caregivers must accept the person as they are now, and focus on his or her remaining abilities.

The Gospel narratives of Jesus’ short time on earth encourage us to live in the present by simply practicing stillness. In Luke, when Jesus visits the home of Martha and Mary, we see Martha busy “doing” while Mary calmly sits at the feet of Jesus. When Martha protests that Mary is not helping her with the food and drink, Jesus answers that Mary is “doing the good part” because as Jesus teaches “I will not always be with you”.  

'Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.' And Jesus answered and said to her, 'Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken from her' " (Luke: 10:39-42).

To some, moments of “stillness” spent with a loved one may not seem meaningful. Family members experience a range of restless emotions– what we might call, the “Martha” mentality – as their loved one’s disease progresses. Because they have no control over the disease itself, they feel the need to take control in other ways. One of the most commonly articulated feelings is: ‘what can I do to restore meaning to my loved one’s life?

The notion of simply sitting together, looking out at the trees and letting whatever happens in that moment happen, strikes many concerned caregivers as too simple. How can this make up for the high-powered career, the intellectual pursuits, the full life their loved one used to relish before this disease took it all away? 

When we accept that our loved ones cannot be with us as they once were, simply being still with them becomes easier. I feel blessed and honored to serve as a Chaplain in a memory support community and to be with people at this time of their lives. What I have discovered in my time spent providing a “pastoral presence” is that there are simple, natural ways of connecting with people and being with them in their present moment. The ability to share in the present can make the difference between a good day and a bad day, both to a loved one and to the caregiver alike.

 If you are a family caregiver, you may find the following suggestions helpful:

  • Touch: A light touch on the hand or shoulder conveys compassion and understanding without a word.  Hand massage is a powerful way to communicate care, kindness and oneness.
  • Music: Familiar songs captivate everyone’s attention while evoking feelings and memories from a bygone era. This can be a deeply spiritual experience, especially if those songs are hymns that stir the love of God.
  • Nature: A walk outside can bring back familiar sights and sounds. Even a familiar smell might bring a smile.
  • Sitting: Simply sitting side by side in chapel, praying, and singing familiar parts of the service can be a meaningful way to connect.
  • Photo Albums: It is amazing how often a resident with memory impairment can tell a story when prompted by a photo from childhood.

These simple, peaceful moments are valuable opportunities to connect with a loved one in a way that is free of frustration and anxiety, and rich in spirit and meaning.

“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.”
Henry David Thoreau


Day of Service in Cambridge Shelter

On May 24th eighteen staff members from Youville House and Youville Place Assisted Living Residences gathered at St. Patrick Women’s Shelter in Somerville, Massachusetts for a day of community service.  Staff, who represented almost all departments from both residences, painted walls and door frames, cleaned rooms, affixed new blinds, replaced old cove base moldings, rebuilt and outside patio space, and cut back an aggressive battalion of weeds.  During lunch break, the Director of the shelter, Nancy Kavanagh, spoke to the group about the mission, daily routine and, most poignantly, the women who live there – some for just a night; others for several months at a time as they look for work and a more permanent situation.  While not able to jump into the head and heart of each person present, it’s fair to say that something important happened, affecting everyone who participated that day.

The team made a genuine contribution to the aesthetics of the building and came together as a community among themselves.  Being in a situation where assistance was offered to others in need, helped to increase a sense of gratitude, and for some, opened a window on personal experiences where  difficulties were faced. 

Thankfully, most of us have help and support during those kinds of times -- someone to kindle the spark and relight the flame within us.  Hopefully, the effort the team offered on this one day of community service (painting  the hallways, cleaning, replacing blinds and fixing the patio) will brighten the space, and offer the women who come to that space each night, a sense that they are not alone..

Serving others is a wild and crazy adventure.  No matter how hard one tries, inevitably, those doing the serving seem to get more out of it and learn more than those being served.  The author and physician, Rachel Naomi Remen once said that, “Helping, fixing and serving represent three different ways of seeing life. When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul.”   For sure, a bit of helping and fixing took place, yet, those who participated knew that this was mostly a work of service. 

For more information about the shelter click here.