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Monday, September 19, 2022

‘She Never Fails to Make me Smile:’ Companions to the Aging Program in Lynn Building Life-Changing Friendships

On Wednesday afternoons, just after lunch, the song “You Made Me Love You” can often be heard drifting from Selma’s apartment in Swampscott.

“Selma’s father used to sing the song,” said Maribeth Barrell. “So, she likes to play it when I visit.”

It is just one of the many details Barrell has learned about Selma since joining Catholic Charities Boston’ Companions to the Aging Program in Lynn.

Other notable details include the fact that she is a die-hard Boston Red Sox fan, that she is a mother of two, and that she, occasionally, affords herself the pleasure of enjoying a baked good.

Each visit, Barrell said they will go for a walk down the hall of Selma’s building to help her get exercise. For the most part, however, they simply sit and chat, sharing stories from the past.

At the age of 97, Selma has no shortage of memories, or wisdom, to share.

“We truly enjoy our time together,” said Barrell. “It’s a great program.”

Robert Connolly, Coordinator of the Companions to the Aging Program in Lynn, said that the pandemic has led to a shortage of volunteers like Barrell, with people still hesitant to meet in person. Nonetheless, he said Barrell and the other two companions in the program have been phenomenal since they joined, speaking with clients over the phone when Covid cases had spiked, and now, safely meeting in person each week.

“They all are the type of people who would get along with anyone,” said Connolly. “They have been amazing.”

Among this small team is a woman named Jacqueline Canali, who has been involved in the program for 20 years. Since retiring as a teacher and joining the program, Canali has worked with five elderly women.

“I consider myself blessed to have known each of those five ladies,” said Canali.

Currently, Canali meets with two clients, a 94-year-old woman named Dot and a 87-year-old woman. With the 87-year-old woman’s health declining, Canali said they have not been able to socialize as much as they once did, but Canali nonetheless continues to provide support and companionship to her once a week.

Dot, whose favorite pastimes include visiting the Encore Casino and her local senior center, remains a lively presence each time Canali visits.

“Dot has such a positive attitude about life,” she said. “She never fails to make me smile.”

Above all, through her two decades in the program, Canali said it is the ability to listen which has most served her in connecting with clients.

In today’s pandemic-shaped world, opportunities for such socialization are especially hard to come by for elderly people. According to a 2020 CDC study, one-fourth of adults ages 65 or older are considered socially isolated, which was linked to a 50% increased risk of dementia and other health conditions.

Consistent with Catholic Charities’ mission of moving clients into a place of stability and self-sufficiency, the Companions to the Aging Program seeks to combat this isolation by providing elders—and volunteers—with the anchor of strong, loyal friendships.

“Each of the clients I’ve worked with will always hold a special place in my heart,” said Canali.

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