September 20, 2017

Keeping Homebound Socially Engaged Is Key to Senior Center Program

WELCOME VISITORS: Margaret Vanmarke, left, a volunteer with HomeFriends, makes weekly visits to Eileen Behrens, right, to help keep her from becoming socially isolated. The Princeton Senior Resource Center program is celebrating its 30th anniversary.

By Anne Levin

When Princeton Senior Resource Center (PSRC) sends a volunteer to help a homebound elderly or disabled member of the community, they don’t choose just anybody. Participants in PSRC’s HomeFriends program, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, are matched with clients for similar interests, personalities, and needs.

“There was a woman who had gone blind, and had worked for many years in the state department,” recalled Dave Roussell, PSRC’s HomeFriends coordinator and home care coordinator. “In her job, she had learned French. So she asked us to hook her up with someone who spoke French. I did find someone who was fluent, and it worked out really well.”

Barbara Purnell, a founder of the program, recalls a former Princeton University history professor who had endured a series of tragedies, including a disabling stroke. Like her husband, the man was a graduate of Johns Hopkins University. “I decided I was going to recruit my husband to be his volunteer,” she said. “And they developed a nice relationship. Unfortunately, he had another stroke and didn’t live much longer. But he was a fascinating guy with virtually no one left in his life, and he always sticks in my head.”

Keeping people from becoming socially isolated is the main goal of HomeFriends, which Ms. Purnell co-founded after moving to Princeton from Montclair three decades ago. It is just one of the services provided by PSRC, which will hold its annual fundraiser on Sunday, September 24 at Princeton High School Performing Arts Center. The improvisation and sketch comedy troupe The Second City will perform at 4 p.m. Tickets are still available starting at $38; VIP tickets including a reception with the cast are $150. Visit for information.

Volunteers for HomeFriends range from graduate students to senior citizens active in the PSRC. Currently, about 13 clients are enrolled. “Some volunteers are students; some are older and still in the work force,” Roussel said. “Others are retired and want to do a little give-back.”

In addition to providing companionship, the once-weekly visitors do modest tasks like grocery shopping, reading the mail, sorting photos, or taking a client to hear a lecture. They are not intended to replace home care assistance, which requires professional training in memory loss and personal care. The friendships that develop can be meaningful not just for the client, but for the volunteer as well.

“I love watching the developing relationships,” said PSRC Executive Director Susan Hoskins. “People [volunteers] have told me about how much it means to visit with their children so they can get to know an older adult and learn about volunteering. The older adults tell me what a breath of fresh air it is to know they have a weekly visitor. We love this program because it helps people age in place, and stay in their own homes. Many of them can do many things for themselves, but have a few challenges like not driving, or mobility. HomeFriends is also a wonderful opportunity for someone, or a family, to give back to the community by helping an older adult.”

Purnell co-founded the program with Joce Helm and Sue Tillett, modeling it on a program Purnell had run in Montclair. “I had been working with the elderly, and when we moved here I met the then-director of PSRC,” she said. “They wanted to start a program like the one I had been running in North Jersey. We applied to United Way for a grant for start-up programs, got one, and were on our way.”

While the program Purnell had headed in Montclair also included “telephone reassurance,” she said, the Princeton initiative has been focused on home visits. “It was mostly about conversation and social interaction. For somebody who is homebound, there is a real need for that.”

Purnell ran the program for a few years before turning it over to others, but has maintained a close relationship with PSRC. “There aren’t other programs like HomeFriends around here that I know of,” she said. “There is still such a need for it.”