Arlene Austin and Claudette Wiebe sit together at a local Tim Horton’s.
They grasp hands when Austin, 72, describes their friendship as “perfect.”
Six years ago, the pair met through the Friendly Visiting Program facilitated through Seniors Healthy Aging Resource Environment Society (SHARES).
Before the match, Wiebe, 71, often stayed within her Abbotsford home. Shy, and without transportation, weeks would go by in which she did not see anyone.
“She’s changed me so much,” Wiebe says. “I didn’t speak to people, my head was down.”
Now, during their weekly visit, Austin introduces Wiebe to her friends. “She laughs and giggles,” Austin says.
The women go grocery shopping on Wednesdays, after which they visit the food court in the mall, drinking root beer and talking about their lives. Currently, Austin is often still the only person that Wiebe sees during the week, with her son living in Chilliwack and working long hours.
Austin covers her face in disbelief when she explains that Wiebe now enjoys reading.
After years of Austin encouraging her to “get her nose into some of the books on her shelf,” Wiebe exclaims that she reads five or six hours a day.
As a retired nurse, Austin feels like she is still contributing to society, just in another way.
During her 16 years as a volunteer, she has had seven clients and is still in contact with her first, Sandra Mix, now in her 90s.
“I go over to feed her now, because that is the level she is now at,” Austin says.
For seniors such as Wiebe and Mix, the friendship becomes a lifeline, says Sar Robson, executive director for SHARES.
The visitor gets to know the senior and can tell if there is something wrong with their health. Robson and the volunteer then can arrange for further support if necessary, notifying the family or emergency services.
The program currently aids 30 seniors, and enlists 25 volunteers, some of whom have more than one client.
“We hope that we are making a dent in the community. But with Abbotsford having one of the fastest-growing seniors populations, we can’t keep up,” she said, noting that she receives phone calls from people across the country, who are seeking companions for their parents living in town. Currently, there are 10 seniors on the program’s waiting list.
With the Christmas season nearing, Robson hopes that more volunteers come forward. Many seniors are uncomfortable driving in winter weather, or have health conditions that confine them to their homes, and are unable to experience the festivities.
“During Christmas time, the seniors tend to reflect a lot. It’s a very important time for us,” Robson said.
Volunteers are required to make a one-year commitment to the program, giving time for training and matching the visitor with the right senior, so that a genuine friendship develops.
“I call her my angel,” Wiebe says.
SHARES is an independent charity organization and has offered the Friendly Visiting Program since 1989. To volunteer or for more information call 604-854-1733.