‘In Good Company’ is the cure for loneliness

  • October 5, 2013

TORONTO - Thanks to Toronto’s Sisters of St. Joseph, many of the city’s isolated homebound residents are living a less lonely life.

Thirteen years ago, Sr. Georgette Gregory collaborated with the Fontbonne Ministries to establish the In Good Company Ministry.

“We found out there was a great need for not just housing for women 40 to 60 years old but there was a great need to visit elderly who were isolated in their homes, who were living by themselves,” said Gregory, a former nurse at St. Joseph’s Health Centre. “Many people that are living alone first of all lose touch with their communities, they get isolated (and) if they don’t have someone to talk to regularly they often begin to lose their memory. They get very lonely, very depressed and they can also have a tendency to jump to anyone who comes to the door.

“That could lead to all kinds of serious complications.”

Since many of the clients who benefit from the In Good Company Ministry are homebound seniors with limited mobility due to medical conditions, they are vulnerable to exploitation. Gregory said this opens them up to being conned, robbed or abused. That’s why before a volunteer is approved to be trained during a mandatory one-day workshop, such as the one which was held on Sept. 28 at the Mustard Seed, they must first be found to be a good citizen.

“I do a very strict investigation of anyone who is going to volunteer,” said Gregory, who works with Fontbonne Ministries’ Leanne Kloppenborg to evaluate potential volunteers. “We do a police check and we check very carefully their references because they are high risk going into homes with so many break-ins and so many of the things happening to elderly. We just will not put anybody into a home until we check them out very thoroughly to make sure they are not only safe but that they have a propensity to do that kind of work.”

And that’s why Gregory insists volunteers complete her training program prior to being matched with a client. While the primary function of the workshops is to briefly teach volunteers about effective communication, common medical conditions and legal issues that may arise, the day also gives Gregory a chance to get to see first hand how a volunteer interacts with others.

Even fellow Sister of St. Joseph Sr. Mary Fatta wasn’t exempt from this process before taking on the ministry full-time. For Fatta, who’s been visiting a number of clients since 2001, the skills she learned from this training were crucial to cracking the shell of one particularly challenging client. “One particular person I’ve visited for a number of years, I won’t tell you her name or anything, she has had a very abusive situation and is kind of a bit paranoid and not trusting of people,” said Fatta. “It has been really challenging for me over the years and there have been times when I wished I didn’t have to visit her.” Although resistant to opening up to Fatta at first, the client continued to request her visits and eventually the two were able to develop a positive relationship. Fatta said while this case was an extreme example, it is not uncommon for clients to have some reservations about having her in their home during a vulnerable time in their lives.

But overcoming that barrier only adds to the benefit she receives from her clients.

“I usually go away from most of my visits feeling better,” she said. “I’m serving them and their needs (but) they’ve helped me (too).”

Gregory said this kind of initial tension isn’t unique to Fatta and normally only lasts short-term. That being said, Gregory did admit that once in a while the match just doesn’t work no matter how hard the volunteer tries. That’s when the volunteer needs to contact Gregory and admit defeat; after all the ministry is about the clients’ needs first and foremost.

“You’re going in to fulfil that person’s needs not your own needs,” said Gregory. “If this is not going to work you have to tell me and don’t be afraid to call. It doesn’t always work for everybody.”

Those interested in volunteering can begin the process by calling Kloppenborg at (416) 467- 2640.

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