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Program focuses on seniors at risk of isolation and loneliness

Posted on 27 August 2018 by calvin

By JAN WILLMS
It is nearly 5pm on a Monday, and Longfellow resident Jim Buskirk is anticipating a visitor. He is looking forward to conversation and a challenging game of tic, a card game similar to gin rummy.

Emily Wildberger has finished her work day as a project manager for Target Corporation. She is nearing the due date of her pregnancy and is tired and ready for a nap.

But all those feelings disappear as she looks forward to meeting her friend Jim, hoping that this evening she might actually win a card game with him.

Buskirk and Wildberger are part of a program initiated by Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly (LBFE), 1845 E. Lake St. The mission of the organization is to end social isolation and loneliness among older adults in the Twin Cities.

Photo right: Longfellow resident Jim Buskirk (left) is visited by Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly volunteer Emily Wildberger every other week. (Photo by Jan Willms)

Although the program of visiting companions has always been a part of LBFE, a new project, Neighbor Connect, is starting now in the Longfellow neighborhood.

“Through Neighbor Connect, Longfellow community members will forge a path toward creating isolation-free blocks to ensure everyone, even those who live alone, are connected and feel a sense of belonging,” said LuAnne Speeter, communications director for LBFE.

Both Wildberger and Buskirk can attest to the benefits of connecting with each other. They began their visits last January.

“I found out about the program through the NextDoor app,” Wildberger said. She had started working as a companion in college, so it was something she knew she wanted to do and something she knew was needed in the neighborhood. A native of South Carolina, she moved to the area with her husband, who is Minnesotan that grew up in the Longfellow neighborhood.

“She just started coming every other Monday,” Buskirk said. The pair think Buskirk’s daughter Shelly, who lives in Atlanta, may have been the one who contacted LBFE to find a volunteer to visit her father.

“I have been in this house since 1964,” Buskirk noted. “I was in the army during the Korean War, and I was married for 35 years. That was wonderful.”

He attended Augsburg College, where he met his wife. They raised three children. Buskirk worked as a mailman, later being promoted into management. “I did that for 35 years, also,” he said.

Buskirk has a great love of sports, which he shares with Wildberger. She, in turn, has taught him about her dog and love of fantasy fiction. “Being a mailman, Jim did not like dogs very much,” she said.

Wildberger said she went through some training and received a little bit of information about Buskirk. “We went out for dinner a couple of times, at Carbone’s and Applebee’s,” she said, “so you could see if you liked me. And I guess you did.”

These days, with Wildberger’s advancing pregnancy, they usually meet at Jim’s house and play cards and visit.

“We don’t really have that much in common,” Wildberg said. “But that’s good because we can learn new things from each other. I am learning about baseball, basketball, and football. And Jim is an expert on TV shows.”

For his part, Jim has learned about her husband and the little pink house they share with her dog. And he has met her brother, Drew, who came over to play cards with them one day.

Forming these connections is what LBFE is all about. According to Speeter, the organization started in Paris in 1946 and was first in the United States in 1959. It opened in the Twin Cities in 1972.

As well as helping form friendships between elders and other community members, LBFE has a program called Friendship and Flowers, in which homebound residents receive visits and homemade cookies on a monthly basis.

“We have focused Neighbor Connect in the Longfellow area to try and get as many elders connected as possible,” Speeter said. “There are about 1400 elders over the age of 65 in the Longfellow community who live alone and are more at risk of isolation and loneliness.”

She said the program primarily works with elders who do not have a strong family connection nearby or a strong social network, but anyone who feels isolated can benefit.

“We get referrals from lots of different sources,” Speeter explained. “Sometimes from family who lives out of town, or from social services. Some people just call up and say they would like to have a friend.”

Speeter said Longfellow was chosen as a pilot project for Neighbor Connect because of the number of elders living in the community and also because some tools were already in place, such as organizations like the Longfellow Community Council and Longfellow/Seward Healthy Seniors. “We are partnering with them to focus on this neighborhood, and then replicate Neighbor Connect in other communities,” Speeter said.

“So many people are on social media these days, and you just don’t see them out in their yards and interacting with each other. We hope this program will bring greater excitement and greater awareness among community members.”

For Buskirk and Wildberger, the evidence of the success of the program is already in place.

“I play cards on Thursdays with a male friend, and every other Monday with Emily,” Buskirk said. “I really look forward to those days. The best thing out of the relationship is getting to know her and having a friendship.”

“The best thing is friendship,” Wildberger agreed. “Jim is a part of my community. People at work ask if I have won at cards. It’s fun, and we talk.”

“I don’t think the age difference is a barrier. I think it is nice for us to be this far apart in age. He has raised three children and has grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It is nice to have someone who has experience with family life.”

For anyone in the Longfellow community interested in becoming a part of Neighbor Connect, contact Ann Fosco at afosco@littlebrothersmn.org or 612-746-0725.

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