The big job of elder support: Mitigating isolation and loneliness for senior citizens

For a community to be labeled "resilient", its story arc has invariably followed a challenging path that’s far from a fairytale. Every story of a community’s struggles has its own unique aspects, but many earmarks are familiar: a decrease in population; surging crime. The roadblocks to prosperity are often imposed by those who lack a stake in its success and fail to consider the long-term impact of pivotal financial decisions and events.

The resilience that forms amid the crucible of adversity can also foment a more cohesive community that’s focused on solutions and eager to embrace innovative ideas. Throughout its evolution, the Mt. Airy community has benefitted from leaders, organizations, and everyday citizens invested in their neighborhood and collaborating to address community concerns. They view their community as more than the sum total of its average home resale value and the car counts on its main traffic artery.

The COVID-19 pandemic emphatically delivered the message that we need connection to others not only to thrive, but even to function. This is exponentially true for senior citizens. When those who are physically and emotionally vulnerable suffer from acute feelings of isolation, this can manifest as profound threats to physical or mental health.

There are abundant resources for addressing senior citizen’s physical needs. However, finding the means to assist with their emotional and mental health presents a formidable challenge. Assessing someone’s psychological wellbeing isn’t often assisted by visible symptoms, and elders grew up in an era where they were sternly advised to keep a stoic “brave face” and not display weakness or vulnerability.

Thankfully, such harsh attitudes are receding (though still probably not swiftly enough), and the importance of self-care and transcending the past stigma associated with mental-health treatment is being accomplished more successfully. The Mt. Airy nonprofit Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly (LBFE) supports many in Greater Cincinnati’s elderly population and minimizes feelings of isolation through everyday acts of inclusion and compassion.

It started in Paris

Referencing the City of Lights probably evokes many connotations: the Eiffel Tower, gastronomic nirvana, an overarching romantic ambiance. An underappreciated, but important, aspect of Paris’ legacy is its home base for the Fédération Internationale Les Pettie Freres Des Pauvres (translating to “Little Brothers of the Poor”), for which Armand Maquiset began pursuing his vision in 1939 and formally established in 1946. The timing was impeccable; Europe had suffered unfathomable death, loss, and trauma in the aftermath of World War II, and the need for connection and companionship was profound.

LBFE cultivated a mission of working in a one-to-one level with senior citizens to mitigate isolation and loneliness. Today, the organization operates in 22 countries, with its first U.S. location opening in Chicago in 1959, and Petite Freres serves approximately 45,000 elders globally with the assistance of roughly 30,000 volunteers, according to Barbara Bringuier, Petite Frere’s director and a member of its global board of directors. The ratio of those served to those serving underscores the organization’s emphasis on forming intimate, nurturing relationships.

Bringuier emphasized the importance of fostering connection among societal elders because the interconnected nature of physical and mental health can swiftly trigger a vicious cycle. “If someone is feeling lonely, it can be as hard on the body as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, or being obese,” she said. “As you age, your mobility decreases, so physical limitations make the elderly even more vulnerable to isolation.”

LBFE serves its elders (whom they call friends) in simple ways: by hosting workshops and game nights, making weekly phone calls and in-home visits. It strives to make sure the same volunteer stays in consistent touch with the same friend to help build relationships and foster trust.

These simple acts of kindness create significant impact. A series of 23 studies with 181,000 participating adults was reviewed in 2016 and published by Heart indicated that loneliness, isolation, or a combination of both created a 29% increased likelihood of heart attack and 32% greater chance of stroke. As with many facets of our wellbeing, its small steps, rather than extreme measures, that provide the most fruitful results.

Larry Adams, aka Mister Larry The Mayor of Mt. Airy, is a well-loved LBFE friend.

LBFE serves Cincinnati

After establishing its Chicago office, LBFE has expanded to Boston, Houghton and Marquette, Michigan, New York, San Francisco, and, of course, Cincinnati. The founders of LBFE’s Cincinnati outpost, Yogi Wess, began her service with LBFE with an internship in Chicago in 1977. She received $125 per month, room and board, and a Brinks truck worth of gratitude. Her role continued to expand and evolve in the Chicago office, and, upon returning to Cincinnati in 1988, Yogi and her husband, Randy (a Cincinnati native who also interned for LBFE), continued serving elders independently. LBFE provided a stipend to support the Wess’s efforts.

In 1997, the organization decided to formally open a Cincinnati LBFE office in 1997. Their first storefront was also located in Mt. Airy at 5552 Colerain avenue. Within a few years, LBFE had clearly outgrown its first facility. Following their landlord’s suggestion, the organization moved down the street 5530 Colerain in 2002. Mark Berning, one of the organization’s board members, purchased the property and ultimately gifted it to LBFE.

The Wesses both served stints as LBFE Cincinnati’s executive director, and they elected to step back from role of administrative leave and its board appointed Ja’Lah Willingham to the executive director role, which she assumed in December 2022. She had previously served as volunteer coordinator for Meals on Wheels of Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky. Ja’Lah noted the difference between fulfilling a basic bodily need versus more what may be perceived as a more intangible need.

“The meals delivered were appreciated, and helping others in need always feels rewarding, but it felt transactional,” Willingham said. “There was a dollar value assigned to it, and the meal deliveries were time-stamped. LBFE makes emotional investments with the friends it helps and helping them feel loved and included, and there’s no dollar value attached to that.”

The organization helps approximately 180 seniors routinely, with outreach swelling to approximately 500 during the holiday season. Sometimes, senior citizens contact the organization seeking support. On other occasions, aligned organizations such as the Council on Aging of Southwest Ohio. Willingham said that one positive outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it’s elevated the importance of supporting mental health has been upgraded from “nice to have” to “a necessity”, which raises the sense of urgency in providing emotional and psychological support.

Willingham noted how recent societal trends underscore the importance of organizations like LBFE. With each generation, families are having fewer (or no) children, which leaves fewer loved ones to care for elders. Also, as the population becomes increasingly mobile and transient, it’s less likely that relatives are able to handle care. A recent New York Times article used the term “kinless seniors” in reference to the approximately one million Americans who do not have family to care for them. “With no family or close friends available to provide a safety net care for so many elderly, the work of organizations like ours to provide emotional support becomes more necessary,” Willingham said.

The organization operates on a relative shoestring budget. Its annual outlay is $300,000; between 30 and 40% of its annual budget from grants such as the Carol Ann & Ralph V. Haile, Jr. Foundation, however the majority of its funds derive from private contributions. Its four-person staff comprise Willingham; Wess, who currently works as service coordinator, which entails ensuring LBFE’s friends receive necessary services; assistant director Dawn Carlson, a very recent hire with a graphic-design background who’s previously volunteered with the organization; and program director Shyrle Johnson, who coordinates LBFE events.

Its budget is comparatively small compared to many 501(c)(3) organizations. A roster of 400 volunteers enables and powers the organization to positively impact the lives of senior citizens. Activities to keep seniors stimulated and involved include game nights and social events at the Mt. Airy headquarters, as well as outings to restaurants, movies, and plays.

One recently initiated way LBFE helps its friends express themselves is through painting classes where they gather to paint small canvases with portraits, still lifes, landscapes, and other subjects. The results of their creations beautify a wall of the LBFE office and help tell the stories of the community and those who enrich it. Willingham is hopeful that the program will engage more among the LBFE community to express themselves.

LBFE Friend Dolores Allman (left) and longtime volunteer Kathy Eby strike a whimsical holiday pose. From Thanksgiving to New Year's, those who live in isolation (senior citizens in particular), are particularly prone to depression.

Volunteers give and receive

Complementing the organization’s fun sociability are weekly phone check-ins and in-home visits, which allow LBFE friends to share as much or as little as they need to provide support and security. This is where LBFE volunteers shine brightly. As LBFE volunteers forge relationships with friends, their helping hand extends to provide transportation for doctor’s visits, shopping, and other essential errands.

Kathy Eby, who has volunteered with the organization for 12 years got involved when she sought volunteer opportunities after retiring from Procter & Gamble.  

She now manages volunteers who want to be involved with the weekly calling program. There are several LBFE friends waiting in the queue to be partnered with a volunteer, and Eby is hopeful for greater participation. There’s no script provided for callers; it’s simply an opportunity to harness the heart to provide a lifeline of support to a lonely elderly person.

“The calls are simply about taking the time to show that we care about our friends,” Eby said. “We can talk about whatever makes them comfortable. Sometimes, they end up asking about me and providing helpful advice. The calls last as long as our friends need.”

When asked what valuable lesson she’s learned, Eby said, “The value of a dollar. Most of our friends live on fixed incomes, and they have to think carefully about what they buy. Many of us think nothing of a $4 cup of coffee. It’s a major expense for them. It’s a good lesson in responsibility.”

She has fond memories of her LBFE friends. Her most vivid memories are of Betty, who was an adventurous, well read, well-traveled woman who regaled Kathy with stories such as watching ballet virtuoso Mikhail Baryshnikov perform in Washington, D.C. She said listening to such stories reminds her that the people LBFE serves are more than the wizened bodies and minds the world now sees.

“I always joke that kids and puppies attract all the attention,” Kathy said. “The elderly are often met with fear because they remind of a challenging future that awaits us and scares us a little. LBFE elevates their worthiness and is a reminder to us that they are beautiful human beings that deserve to be loved.”

From an unassuming building on Colerain Avenue, LBFE makes an immense difference in the lives of the senior citizens it serves. It’s an apt reflection of the organization, and of Mt. Airy itself; with authenticity, empathy, intention, and persistence, great things can be achieved.

This Resilient Neighborhoods series presents stories that focus on leaders, organizations, and everyday people who, in large and small ways, help a community regain a positive identity by collaborating to overcome its struggles.

You can read earlier articles in the Resilient Neighborhoods – Mt. Airy series here.

The Mt. Airy series has been made possible with support from the City of Cincinnati and Homebase, the leading resource for community development, focused on sharing resources, funding, and expertise that helps transform neighborhoods and improve the quality of life for the residents of Greater Cincinnati.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Steve Aust.

Steve is a freelance writer and editor, father, and husband who enjoys cooking, exercise, travel, and reading. A native of Fort Thomas who spent his collegiate and early-adulthood years in Georgia, marriage brought him across the river, where he now resides in Oakley.