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Write to a pen pal, visit a new friend with TARCOG’s initiative

MADISON – Individuals can start a mutually beneficial relationship as a pen pal or by visiting a resident in long-term care, thanks to guidance from TARCOG or Top of Alabama Regional Council of Governments.

Currently, TARCOG is actively recruiting volunteers for its Long-Term Care Ombudsman initiative for the Pen Pal and Friendly Visit programs.

For TARCOG, an ombudsman is an advocate who works to protect the health, safety, welfare and rights of all individuals (residents) in long-term care (nursing homes) and assisted-living and specialty-care facilities, Alicia Thomas Howard said. Howard is TARCOG’s Lead Ombudsman Representative.

TARCOG employees pair residents of long-term care facilities with a volunteer who will write to a resident on a regular basis or conduct friendly visits at the nursing home.

In 2011, TARCOG added Pen Pals to the volunteer program. Volunteer programs often require participants to have access to transportation and may provide only limited volunteer hours, mostly daytime hours, Howard said.

However, Pen Pals offer flexible times and locations to participants who have busy lives but still want to influence the life of a resident in a long-term care facility.

To contact a resident, volunteers can email, phone or write letters. The volunteer can choose to write individually or with a group.

TARCOG hopes to launch the Pen Pal program in three “focus, long-term care facilities,” all in Madison County, Howard said.

“Participants are encouraged to have fun, creative, uplifting and encouraging letter content,” Howard said. A personal letter or visit lets a resident know that someone is thinking about him or her and provides an outlet for socialization for both parties.

However, pen pals should avoid some content:

* Conversations leading to romantic or sexual discussions or sending sexually-explicit materials.

* Discussions about politics and religion.

* Discussion about business or legal advice.

Pen pal volunteers can participate individually or as a family or group and can be any age and gender. Pen pals don’t always have to handwrite letters. A participant who cannot write a letter can use email or telephone as an alternative.

Pen Pal participants can significantly impact a resident’s life without entering a facility to conduct face-to-face visits. “This program usually benefits the participant who cannot make friendly visits, due to daily constraints of work or caring for family,” Howard said.

To volunteer in a facility, all participants must complete free training. Training consists of observation and three on-site visits minimum in a long-term care facility within three weeks before volunteering there.

Volunteers interested in facility visits must be 18 years of age minimum.

“Participants who choose to do friendly visits (face-to-face) have the benefit of engaging and having a physical interaction with the resident,” Howard said. “These face-to-face visits help the resident to connect and establish a friendship, trust and bond with the volunteer. Face-to-face visiting is often impactful in helping to reduce various behavioral problems, loneliness and depression.”

Volunteers’ feedback has been rewarding and positive. “Being in the facility and witnessing the lives and daily routines of residents and staff have empowered many of our volunteers. The experience has allowed them to understand the importance of our program, as it relates to (confirming) residents receive the quality of life they deserve,” Howard said.

For more information, call Howard at 256-716-2451, or visit tarcog.us.

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