Helping Hand Turned Into Friendship

By Marsha Kay Seff

September 13, 2008 4 min read

BWK (boomer without kids), I often wonder who's going to look after me in my dotage. Who's going to bring me chocolate brownies? Who's going to take me to the doctor, run errands for me, read to me? Who's going to care about me?

That's why I was so eager to meet Hilary Harrison. After retiring two years ago from her job as a personal assistant in finance, she signed up as a volunteer with the nonprofit, committed to helping elderly adults remain independent and in their own homes.

Part of the Friendly Visitor program in San Diego, she was paired with Betty C., a 99-year-old who used a walker, but still lived alone in her apartment.

Betty had no local family. Two of her sons are deceased and a third, an 80-year-old, lives in Illinois.

"We hit it off right away," Harrison said. A self-described "people person," she said, "I read to her, played Crazy Eight and Yahtzee, took her to the doctor."

The two women became tight friends, with Harrison visiting about twice a week. She even talked regularly to Betty's daughter-in-law in Indiana. "She said I was an angel from above."

Of her older friend, Harrison said, "She had a lot of dignity and determination. It would have been so easy for her to give up and let people do for her. But she didn't expect things. If you offered, she took it graciously."

In addition to all that, "She was a religious lady. And she had a good sense of humor."

Unfortunately, after two falls, Betty had to move to a skilled-nursing facility. But Hilary visited daily. She even started a little book where visitors were encouraged to leave messages.

She was there to help her friend celebrate her 100th birthday, complete with balloons and, per Betty's request, chocolate cake, pumpkin pie and ice cream.

Betty died six months later, nearly two years after the women met. As her friend had requested, Harrison sang "How Great Thou Art" at the funeral.

Referring to her volunteer work, Harrison said, "I felt like I was giving back to the community, especially the elderly who often are pushed aside. They're like a forgotten race. I felt this was a way to pay it forward and make some great friends."

Now, four months after her friend's passing, Harrison said she's not ready yet to befriend another older person. "I'm too emotionally attached to Betty."

Harrison, who lost her mom at 89 nine years ago, said Betty treated her like a daughter, sharing things about her own family. "She had a hard life, married at 15 to an abusive man. She left him and was married for 65 years. It was the best love story you could imagine."

Until Harrison is ready to go one-on-one again, the grandmother of two volunteers to drive clients to the grocery store, doctors and beauty parlor. She figures she puts in about 10 hours a month.

The ElderHelp office where Harrison gives her time relies heavily on volunteers. According to the group, it has about 300 volunteers who work in a variety of capacities. The Friendly Visitors program has about 25 volunteers and the driving program has 21. More are needed.

All clients are over 60 and live at home, many with little family and few friends to help. Many clients are dealing with health and mobility issues.

I tell Harrison how lucky Betty was to have her and ask if she thinks her two children will care for her someday. "I don't know. I just wouldn't want my kids to think I expect them to take care of me."

Me neither, but then again ...

Marsha Kay Seff writes about aging for The San Diego Union-Tribune. Contact her at [email protected]


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