Columnist John Paradis: With a little help from our friends — and neighbors

  • Walter Salvo House on Conz Street in Northampton. GOOGLE MAPS

Published: 12/14/2018 8:42:33 AM

Karen Jacques lives in the Walter Salvo House in Northampton — that large seven-story vessel of an apartment complex run by the Northampton Housing Authority on Conz Street.

It’s a big place with lots of people, where quite possibly the highest concentration of people live in the entire city, but that doesn’t mean that residents there talk to one another, or at least talk on a regular basis.  

In fact, quite the opposite can be true.

“I can go five days without talking to someone,” Karen says. “It can get really lonely sometimes.”

Karen, like many of her fellow tenants, has had health issues, and she uses a walker to get around. Because of all her medical appointments, she has amassed quite a collection of medical receipts and records — several boxes worth of papers stacked in her apartment.  

Finally, one day, she admitted to herself that she needed some help going through all of it.

What she needed was a neighbor. But what do you do when you don’t necessarily know your neighbors?

That’s where Northampton Neighbors entered the scene, a wonderful nonprofit that was launched in the fall of 2017 to provide services that help senior citizens. When Karen read in the Gazette that an organization was forming up that could help with the general tasks of daily life, and much more, it was a godsend.  

Now a volunteer visits Karen about once a week at her apartment at the Salvo House, and they’ve been going through the mountain of medical records together, whittling it down one paper at a time. 

But more importantly, she’s found a friend and Karen says she looks forward to the visits more so for the social interaction than with the actual task itself — a task she found too daunting to complete herself.

Karen has found what many Americans have found — that we all need help at some point in our lives. Some of us need more help than others perhaps but as we all get older, relying on one another as neighbors can be the difference between loneliness and happiness.

And there’s a lot of loneliness out there.  

Given how we live, it shouldn’t come as any surprise. We move often. And where we live is often in communities built in ways that minimize unplanned interactions with one another.

According to recent reports, loneliness impacts more than a third of older Americans, and the number of us citing depression due to loneliness keeps growing. Over the past few decades, the number of Americans who say they have no one to talk to has more than doubled. One recent report went as far as to say that loneliness in America is an epidemic, especially among the elderly.

Many Americans 65 and older live alone and are homebound for different reasons, including medical conditions or lack access to transportation. 

According to the AARP, many of these adults become physically isolated and emotionally lonely.

There are other factors to blame. Recent research indicates that our constant internet use and social media engagement exacerbates feelings of loneliness, anxiety and isolation.

We Americans aren’t alone in our loneliness. More than 9 million people in the United Kingdom reported they often or always feel lonely, prompting British Prime Minister Theresa May this year to appoint the world’s first “minister for loneliness.” 

But it doesn’t necessarily take a cabinet-level position to confront this modern state of reality. As has been true with so many other challenges in our Pioneer Valley, when a problem exists locally, we confront it locally.  

When Northampton Neighbors was created, its goal was to provide volunteer services and programs to help seniors live more independently and, as its mission statement reads, “engaged lives.” Think of it as neighbors you didn’t even know you had helping you.

But the greatest outcome of the program has been something even more ethereal and, well, since we’re in the holiday season, shall I say, magical?  

“We are that friendly neighbor who offers a ‘cup of sugar’ just when you need it,” says the text of a pamphlet the organization put together. It’s an apt description. Or more simply put: “Sometimes, we all need a good old-fashioned neighbor,” says Judy Leeds, who volunteers as one of about seven call managers.  

Judy is an important cog in this incredible organization — a matchmaker of sorts who, when a call comes in for services, reaches into a bank of volunteers to identify someone best suited to help.

Caring and compassionate volunteers like Judy have been integral to the success of the program. But Northampton Neighbors wouldn’t exist and certainly wouldn’t be able to provide free services if not for the generosity of donors, including a grant from the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts.   

A most valuable relationship has been with the Northampton Senior Center, which is the anchor for the program, providing critical office space and a place for Northampton Neighbors’ only paid staff member, Diane Porcella.

“Quite frankly, we couldn’t do this without the senior center’s support,” said Katharine Baker, Northampton Neighbors’ president and one of its original founders.  

I ask Karen to put into words what Northampton Neighbors means to her. Her eyes light up. “Well you’re about to make me cry,” she says. “It has meant everything.”

Porcella reminds Karen that her visitor, and now friend, is just as grateful for having met Karen and that she has benefited just as much — if not more — by their weekly visits.

“I didn’t know that — thank you for telling me that,” Karen says.

’Tis the season when we count our blessings and when we say thank you to friends and family and, yes, to the neighbors in our lives who have helped us in this often lonely journey called life. What a privilege it is to live in a community where you can be sure that people will watch out for you.

Raise your glasses with some holiday cheer. Here’s a toast to our neighbors, our Northampton Neighbors.  

John Paradis, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lives in Florence and writes a column published the second Friday of the month. He can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com. To request a service through Northampton Neighbors or to volunteer, call the Northampton Neighbors office at (413) 341-0160. For more information, visit northamptonneighbors.org.



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