When you’re young making friends is easy—you are thrown together with other kids your age in the same playgroup, school, camp, etc. and after overcoming some initial shyness, friendships are born. For many people, though, making good friends as an adult is a lot more challenging. If you’re an older senior, and especially if you don’t get around as much or as easily as you used to, it can be nearly impossible.

Social isolation is a big problem for the elderly, and it’s not just an issue of feeling the occasional pangs of loneliness.

AARP.com cited a British study of 6,500 older adults that found that “social isolation, even more than loneliness, may increase an older person’s risk of early death.” That is regardless of other factors such as a person’s health.

Brookline’s accessibility to public transportation, local shops and restaurants, and excellent health care facilities makes it an attractive place for seniors to live in—as of 2010 there were 2,326 residents between the ages of 75 and 84 living in the town. But that has also created a need for services that help solve the problem of elder isolation.

Amy O’Dea, Friendly Visiting Coordinator for the Boston-based volunteer organization FriendshipWorks, told me, “Loneliness is preventable. I heard a quote somewhere that goes, ‘We’ve been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbor.’ I don’t recall who said it” (it was Dr. Bob Moorhead, a retired Seattle pastor.)

Volunteering with an organization like FriendshipWorks, that pairs volunteers with seniors for weekly friendly visits and occasional medical escort services, is an opportunity for both the volunteer and the senior to meet a new person and potentially forge a longtime friendship. For the past 30 years, FriendshipWorks has been serving Brookline and Boston residents—helping to make it easier for strangers to connect.

You don’t need to be a particularly outgoing person to volunteer with FriendshipWorks. You just need to be open to meeting a new person and able to make a 1-year commitment to the friendly visitor program.

O’Dea explained the process to me, “When a senior calls us asking to be matched with a friendly visitor, we first go to the elder’s home, get to know them and find out what they’re looking for in a friendly visitor. Then we interview volunteers and make a match based on location, availability, and common interests.”

Volunteering as a friendly visitor allows people with full-time jobs the flexibility of choosing to spend an hour or two with a senior on a weeknight or on the weekend.

Of course as in any new relationship, there is always the chance that the match won’t “take.” But O’Dea said FriendshipWorks encourages volunteers to visit their assigned senior three times before making a decision about whether or not to continue their visits.

“Any relationship can be awkward at the beginning. The elder might not be feeling well one day.” Three visits is an assurance to both individuals that an effort was made, and if it doesn’t work out both the elder and the volunteer are re-matched with others.

“The friendly visitor program expands people’s horizons,” said O’Dea, “people have great stories to share.”

One such success story is friendly visitor Meredith Baker and her friend Alvin.

“I would never have had the opportunity to meet him [without FriendshipWorks],” Baker told me over email, “He is out and about during the days, while I am at work. He visits certain places I don’t go to, like the senior center. We are very different people, but honestly, I have realized that we are the same. We both crave human interaction. Being a single woman in the area, whose family is out of state, it is good to know that others are in the same boat as me (not able to see family on a regular basis.)”

Baker recalled the first time she met Alvin, “I was nervous. I felt like I was on a job interview. I wanted to remember everything he said. I wanted to make sure that there was never a lull in the conversation and that I always looked interested and engaged. Slowly, after many meetings, that all changed. Alvin became my friend, not a person I visited weekly. Now we laugh and joke, and there are those lulls, but it’s fine. Lulls can be a good thing!”

Organizations like FriendshipWorks essentially make it easier to take that first step to go across the street to meet your neighbor.

Baker saw a need in the community and wanted to do her part to help. After all, there are many seniors living among us with fascinating stories to share—if only they had an active listener.

She recalled one holiday season when she saw a Christmas tree festooned with people’s names.

“I skipped over it because I thought it was filled with family names and I had already donated to that cause. It wasn’t. It was filled with the names of seniors. Seniors whose only requests for Christmas gifts were toothbrushes and pillows. It broke my heart.”

FriendshipWorks’s Amy O’Dea said that anyone over the age of 18 who is interested in becoming a volunteer will be interviewed, get a background check, and then participate in a 2-hour orientation program where they will be trained in the basics—such as how to deal with seniors who have a visual or hearing impairment.

If you would like to volunteer but find you already have a packed schedule, there are other ways to help, said O’Dea. Friendly helpers can make a one-time engagement to help an elder with a specific task, such as switching out summer and winter clothes from a senior’s closet, packing books in anticipation of a move or running an errand for a senior in a tight spot.

“This winter a lot of elders couldn’t get out of the house because of the snow and ice on the sidewalks,” O’Dea pointed out. Just volunteering to pick up a few essentials for a senior in these circumstances can be a big help. These efforts also help create a caring community where neighbors look after each other.

In addition to volunteering as a Friendly Visitor or a Friendly Helper, FriendshipWorks offers opportunities to be a medical escort. The volunteer meets the elder at their home and accompanies them to and from a doctor’s appointment (the senior is responsible for supplying transportation if the office is not in walking distance or if they are too infirm to walk.) There is also a program called Pet Pals where volunteers bring their well-behaved dog or cat for a weekly visit to long-term care facilities. Dozens of studies have been done that show the health benefits of interacting with pets.

Seniors, too, shouldn’t be afraid to reach out.

“Seniors need to find their voices and not be afraid of asking for help,” said volunteer Meredith Baker. “If a senior is feeling isolated or depressed or even just bored, they should give FriendshipWorks a shot.”

Visit FriendshipWorks online or contact Amy O’Dea at aodea@fw4elders.org for more information.

—By Jennifer Campaniolo