Program coordinator Linda Anderson checks in with volunteer Jack Kupelnick. (Mark Lorenz for the Globe)
By Maureen Mullen | Globe Correspondent September 28, 2014
Jackie Canali, a longtime elementary school teacher in Chelsea, wanted to help people at the other end of the age spectrum when she retired 14 years ago.
An ad for Catholic Charities North’s Companions to the Aging program caught her eye, and gave her the opportunity she was seeking.
“You get more out of it than your client does,” said Canali, 73, of Lynnfield, the program’s longest-serving volunteer.
“It’s a really wonderful feeling to know that you make a difference in somebody’s life. Maybe not a great big difference — you’re not solving their problems, you’re listening, you’re sharing. But the one thing you never are is judging. It gives them an avenue to just talk, and it relieves the pressure on some of the families.”
The free program matches companions with older residents across Greater Lynn. Once a week, the volunteer goes to a client’s home for a social visit lasting an hour or so.
“It’s important mostly because it serves the lonely, isolated elders who are living independently,” said Linda Anderson, the program’s coordinator.
“A lot of the other services that come in are more like custodial kinds of services, like home health aides,” she said. “But this focuses on the person and the kinds of things they like to do, whether it’s . . . having a cup of tea and chatting, playing cards, watching a TV program together. It’s purely social.”
To address concerns families might have about letting a stranger into the home of an elderly loved one, Catholic Charities performs screening and criminal background checks, and interviews and trains the volunteers, who must be at least 18. Also, Anderson goes with each volunteer on the initial visit.
She tries to pair clients and volunteers based on personalities. She also works with Greater Lynn Senior Services and area social workers to screen clients to make the best matches.
“I’ll ask the elder what kind of person they like: ‘Do you like a chatty person? Somebody that likes to play cards?’ ” Anderson said. “So I find the match and then I go out with them on their first visit. Sometimes family members like to be there, so I’ll arrange that too, because they also need to know who’s going into the house.”
Anderson also matches volunteers and clients by gender, which can lead to an imbalance. Men, she said, tend to be reluctant to become clients.
“That’s why 80 percent of our elders are women,” Anderson said. “Men aren’t as open. But the men that are, it’s a wonderful friendship that they develop. In fact, one of our elders just passed and I got a note from the volunteer saying, ‘I just want to thank you so much for setting this up. It’s been such a pleasure for me to visit him. He was a wonderful man.’ It’s really a nice program.”
At the moment, Anderson has two male volunteers and is looking for male clients with whom they can be matched.
Jack Kupelnick, 78, of Lynn, has been a volunteer for about four years. He owned a Brigham’s Ice Cream franchise in Belmont, where most of his employees were teens. “I worked with kids and talked to them all the time, and now I talk to adults all the time,” he said with a laugh. Since retiring in 2000, he’s done a lot of volunteering in Lynn, helping out at Union Hospital and City Hall, in addition to the companion program.
Volunteers of all faiths are welcome in the Catholic Charities companion program.
Kupelnick, who is Jewish, is now paired up with his third client, William Bucci, 87 years old and living independently in his Lynn apartment.
“I spend maybe about eight hours a month” with Bucci, visiting him on Wednesday afternoons, Kupelnick said. “I go for between an hour and a half and two hours. I like to talk to people.”
On a recent afternoon they were able to watch a rare weekday Red Sox game together.
“Jack is a great guy. My uncle loves him,” said Bucci’s niece, Lisa Johanson. “My uncle’s the funniest person. . . Jack is the only person he doesn’t complain about. He loves him: ‘Oh, he’s a great guy,’ all the time. Not one negative word about Jack, which is good. It makes me feel even better about the whole program.’’
Johanson, who lives in Nottingham, N.H., commutes daily to her job in Lynn, about an hour each way. She is grateful to have another person checking on her uncle.
“The more help we have the better, because we’re trying to keep him in his apartment as long as we can,’’ she said. “It’s an awesome idea.”
She said she had no reservations about the program “because it was recommended by Greater Lynn Senior Services, and they’re pretty good. And I was told that they run background checks on everybody. So I had no problem.”
For the volunteers, one of the most difficult aspects of the program is when the relationship ends, often because of the death of the client.
Canali is paired up with her third client.
“I lost my first two,” she said. “My first gal died when I think she was 94. My second was not much older than me — that was really difficult to watch her going downhill. But, man, did we have a lot of laughs.’’
All three of her clients “have been really special,’’ she said.
“At first you wonder, ‘Do they really want a stranger coming into their home?’ But within a very short time you’re no longer a stranger; you’re a friend. And that’s the best part of it.”