Loneliness has been a problem since before the pandemic, which only made it worse for individuals experiencing isolation. One-third of adults age 45 and older feel lonely, and that loneliness can negatively affect physical and mental well-being, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The good news is that there are some intrepid souls working to fight social isolation. Create the Good® recently spoke to two volunteers who are helping people feel more connected and less alone.
Digger just seems to get people, whether they’re sick, feel lonely, or just need a snuggle.
Digger is a 135-pound Leonberger, a large, thick-coated dog breed, who is a therapy dog. Several times each month, Digger and his human, Rick Skoglund, visit hospitals and memory centers around Maine to give the patients and residents a bit of canine companionship.
“He can read people. When they're cheerful and happy, like when they're going home, he will go over and say hello and wag his tail. But if someone is seriously ill—we go to intensive care—he will go over and put his head down in their lap and let them hug him and hold him,” Skoglund says.
Digger and Skoglund make volunteer visits at Cove’s Edge, a long-term care and rehabilitation center in Daramiscotta, and Avita Memory Loss Center and Mid-Coast Hospital in Brunswick, as well as to Miles Memorial Hospital, where Skoglund has surpassed more than 1,000 volunteer hours. He has worked with five therapy dogs, including Digger, throughout the years.
Research has shown that therapy dogs can help improve health outcomes, and Digger’s visits help alleviate the social isolation that residents and patients sometimes feel. Sometimes, dogs like Digger seem to be the best medicine. Skoglund recalls a time when he brought one of his therapy dogs to visit a woman in the hospital. She smiled, put her hand on the dog’s head, and said she had a dog at home. At that moment, a doctor came running in. Skoglund worried that there was a problem—but quite the opposite. The woman had experienced a stroke three days prior and hadn’t spoken until the moment she met his dog.
Therapy dogs must be even-tempered and able to endure the loud sounds and movement of a medical facility without becoming stressed or aggressive. The process of certifying a therapy dog requires some legwork. Skoglund recommends the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen training as a good first step. Different medical facilities have different training, certification, and vaccine requirements, so check with the medical facilities at which you want to volunteer.
At eight years old, Digger is slowing down a bit, Skoglund says, but still makes the weekly trips with his human companion. “I let him give the time that he's willing to allow, and he lets me know when it’s time to go,” Skoglund says. Clearly, Digger is a very good boy in more ways than one.
One weekend per month, Darian Hall goes on a true joy ride.
Hall and her husband, Jeff, spend one Saturday per month volunteering for Meals on Wheels America, the nonprofit organization that delivers meals to senior citizens and others who are not able to obtain or prepare meals for themselves. In addition to hot meals, they deliver a bit of warmth, conversation, and companionship to roughly a dozen people on their two routes in Escondido, California.
“You call them a few minutes beforehand so they’re expecting you. Then, you show up at their door and deliver the food. People are always grateful, and some want to have a little chat,” she says. They discuss everything from the weather to how the recipient is feeling. “Hopefully, these little conversations bring a smile to their day,” she says. And the bonds that form are real, too. When Hall’s route changed, she missed one of her former meal recipients. Another volunteer who was covering the route assured Hall that the woman was doing well, giving her peace of mind that she was in good hands.
Hall’s journey with Meals on Wheels started roughly 11 years ago. Her two daughters were grown and on their own, and she was looking for opportunities to make a difference in her community. As she considered various options, some of the timing didn’t work. She still had a robust full-time job, now as a senior account manager with Vericast, so her time was somewhat limited. Meals on Wheels was flexible enough to fit into her schedule.
Becoming a Meals on Wheels volunteer requires training, which the organization provides. According to the website, volunteers may also be asked to undergo a background check and shadow a fellow volunteer. For Hall, it was worth going through the process.
“[Volunteering with Meals on Wheels] probably gives me more joy than I’m giving to anyone else,” she says. “I do it for a lot of reasons that you will feel if you do this work. It’s just rewarding.”