But sometimes, her clients call just to talk about their health, or the weather, or the news.
“I get pats on the back, and hugs, from people I’m meeting for the first time,” Caine said. “They’re just happy to have someone sit down and talk to them. They need someone to take that time.”
Caine is seeking volunteers for A Friendly Face, a new volunteer program designed to give nursing home residents someone to talk to in the long hours between visits from old friends or family.
It’s a bit of a departure for Caine’s office. The Area Agency on Aging is a division of the East Alabama Regional Planning Commission, a multi-county government agency, and it is charged with managing conditions at nursing homes and assisted living facilities over a 10-county area. The Ombudsman’s Office, where Caine works, has four staff members who visit local nursing homes, listen to residents’ complaints and advocate for better treatment.
Not everyone has a complaint, ombudsmen say. But most jump at the chance to be listened to.
“When we walk into a nursing home facility, the residents’ eyes light up,” said Monica Rowe, projects director for the Ombudsman’s Office. “They’re just glad to see someone from the outside.”
Caine and Rowe are looking for people who are able to commit four hours per month to spend in a nursing home with an elderly resident just talking and providing outside companionship. The Friendly Face program is part of a statewide push for companionship programs — Rowe said she believed the programs have already been established in several other Agencies on Aging — but the local ombudsmen say that even without the mandate from the state, they would be seeking help from volunteers.
“Of all the issues I see in this work, the loneliness is the most heartbreaking thing,” Caine said.
Some nursing home residents have outlived their families, Caine said. Others have family who live far away — people who try to visit as often as they can, but sometimes can make it only for holidays. Nursing home staff often have friendly relationships with the residents, Caine said, but employees don’t have time to sit for long periods with everybody. Caine, too, said she wishes she could spend more time with individual residents, but she has hundreds of people to visit.
In Calhoun and Cleburne counties alone, she said, there are 1,100 nursing home beds. Add assisted living facilities to that number and there are thousands of seniors living in similar conditions.
Caine said her program will take as many volunteers as it can get. The program’s standards are high: volunteers have to commit to a year with the program and must undergo a training program before they start. Volunteers will also need criminal background check. Still, Caine is confident the volunteers are out there. Years ago, she managed to find about 40 volunteers for program with similar requirements — a mentoring program for juvenile offenders.
“I can’t predict who the volunteers will be,” she said. “In that earlier program, people came from all walks of life — depot workers, JSU professors, even a mom with four kids.”
Volunteering in nursing homes can be difficult, Caine acknowledges.
“We don’t want to face our own mortality, and you can’t avoid that in this field,” she said. “I have to admit, there are times when I go back to my car and cry.”
The upside, she said, is that volunteering is an empowering experience. Caine recalls another job that had her often in tears: Years ago, she worked as a child abuse investigator in Florida.
“That was difficult,” she said. “But then I thought, I can be good at this. I can help people.”
Caine said her program is looking for people with a similar spirit.
To volunteer, contact Monica Rowe at 256-237-6741.