By Patricia Diaz
“Hello, Frances? It’s Jane with the sheriff’s volunteers,” the woman in uniform said, poking her head just inside the screen door. A small dog barks from somewhere inside the house. “Frances, it’s Jane with the sheriff’s volunteers here to visit you; can we come in?”
“I can’t understand what you’re saying,” a faintly wavering voice finally replied.
Jane Estes and Helen Kirkpatrick, members of Fallbrook’s senior volunteer patrol force, exchange smiles and go in.
Around the corner, 86-year-old Frances Richardson is sitting comfortably in a recliner, with her feet underneath a pink knitted afghan.
“Is this one of yours?” Kirkpatrick asks, giving it a pat. Richardson, who has been knitting as long as she can remember, smiles appreciatively.
A magazine turned to the page with a crossword puzzle is propped up on a pillow in front of her. “I always have one of these,” she says. On the aging television set, Martha Stewart is demonstrating cooking techniques, though Richardson admits it’s been years since she’s cooked her own meals.
Estes and Kirkpatrick settle in as Richardson chats about how loud the planes are outside and proudly shows off her husband’s framed photographs which cover the walls as art, and decorate the fireplace, credenza and many other surfacec.
The half hour of small talk is the cornerstone of Fallbrook’s You Are Not Alone (YANA) program offered for seniors in the community who live independently. Estes, who has been a sheriff’s volunteer for the past 12 years, calls the YANA program the “main idea” behind the senior volunteer patrol.
“The reason for the program is that we wind up enabling people to live independently a little bit longer,” explained Manny Ortega, commander of the senior volunteer patrol and director of the YANA program. “Most of the people who are in the program are in some state of transition.”
Seniors in the program receive daily phone calls and weekly in-person visits from sheriff’s volunteers. With around 54 volunteers on the force, and 60 seniors enrolled in the YANA program, Fallbrook is easily the largest branch in San Diego County. Between visits and phone calls, Ortega said they average about 16,000 contacts a year with their YANAs.
The program is designed for homebound seniors, many of whom don’t have any family in the area, but still want to maintain an independent lifestyle.
“Most of the YANAs, they just don’t want to leave the familiarity of their own place,” Estes said. “We’re a good overlap until they have to move on.”
Sheriff’s volunteers monitor the seniors closely. If the YANA participant doesn’t answer their phone or a knock at the door, deputies follow up in case there might be a more serious problem, such as the person having taken a fall. The volunteers are also trained to notice if the senior appears disoriented or displays any signs of failing health during the weekly visit.
“If there’s something that bothers us, we’ll call one of the family members and tell them to check on them,” said Estes.
The YANA program provides that extra layer of security for seniors and their families. The voluntary program is free, funded by the County of San Diego, and administered by sheriff’s volunteers in the areas of Fallbrook, Bonsall, De Luz, and Rainbow. Any senior can sign up and participate for as long as they like.
While the YANAs come into contact with many different volunteers through the visits and phone calls, the program fosters a personal connection with each senior.
“[Volunteers] get to know [the YANAs] habits and everything,” Ortega said. “It’s a very rewarding program.”
For retired Navy serviceman Joseph Doyle, the YANA program is a godsend. After being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in the fall of 2006, Doyle struggled for several years, hampered by decreasing mobility in his legs and hands. It became difficult for him to perform basic tasks such as keeping his house clean, getting out of the bathtub, and feeding his dog. With no family members closer than Chicago, Doyle was alone until a friend found the YANA program on the Internet.
“It was rough. I was sort of in bad shape before YANA came in,” he said. “After joining YANA, things started falling into place. It’s been great.”
Sheriff’s volunteers worked with Doyle to secure VA funding, which allowed him to make wheelchair modifications to his home and hire a full-time caregiver. The YANA program has enabled Doyle to continue living independently in the Bonsall condominium that has been his home for the past 11 years.
“My home is just my comfort zone,” he said, pushing his glasses back into place with his thumb. “Just give me my couch and my remote and I’m content.”
At age 51, Doyle is Fallbrook’s youngest YANA, but he is a perfect example of the need this program meets.
Ortega said the volunteers work hard to connect the YANAs with agency resources such as the Foundation for Senior Care’s Care Van which will drive them to the grocery store or doctor’s office. The YANAs also enjoy Thanksgiving and Christmas luncheons, where they meet volunteers they often only know over the phone. These holiday gatherings show that YANA is more than a program; it’s an extended family.
“Sometimes some of them don’t have [family],” Ortega said. “We are their family.”
Originally published in Village Lifestyle, July 2010