Dexterity, flexibility, strength, stamina. As we age, it gets tougher to handle physical tasks that used to be mundane. For instance, Susan C. needed help moving after 30 years in her home. Unable to pack everything on her own, she turned to a new nonprofit digital platform in Connecticut called UR Community Cares, seeking a volunteer to assist her. She got Sally, who boxed up her house and also helped her get settled into her new apartment. “Sally was hardworking and wanting to help,” says Susan. “We got along so well, and I feel like we became instant friends.”
UR Community Cares, the brainchild of physical therapist (PT) Michelle Puzzo, is a platform that connects community members who are 70 years or older and/or physically disabled with volunteers who are willing to go to a member’s home to perform house or yard work. Puzzo was inspired to create UR Community Cares after spending the past 10 years going to clients’ home to give PT and seeing how desperately many of her clients needed help and social contact.
The website, which was launched on June 1, 2019, currently has 35 community members and 35 volunteers in the Hartford, Connecticut area signed up. Puzzo is hoping to spread the service throughout the state over the next six months and then expand to other states (and eventually nationwide) within a year. “We know that the demographic of the United States is changing and there are more people who are over the age of 64 now than under it,” she reports. “Health insurance and other programs don’t cover the cost of house and yard work, like taking out the trash, doing laundry or putting air conditioners in the window in the summer and taking them out in the fall, so we’re trying to fill the gap.
Puzzo hopes that seniors with income, strength or mobility issues and with no family nearby for help will be able to age in place with programs like hers. “Our goal is to help this population stay in their homes and avoid hospitalizations due to falls—the biggest risk factor for death in older people—and injuries,” she continues. “We are also trying to help alleviate the loneliness seniors feel, by having our volunteers go to community members’ homes to socialize, play games like chess, read books together and help them on the computer or with paperwork.”
Volunteers benefit, too, racking up credit for community service hours and even college credits, not to mention getting an emotional boost. Ken, a volunteer who helped to install curtain rods for a senior to keep out the cold, says “Today, I made a new friend, and I made her life a little better. It’s a win-win!”
Connect in Connecticut
To sign up, Connecticut residents (members and volunteers) must go to the website (www.urcommunitycares.com) and fill out a form. UR Community Cares then performs a background check on all persons—both volunteers and community members alike. After being accepted on the platform, community members can request “community deeds” like help with laundry, a visit to play a game or to shovel snow. The platform sends out a request to volunteers in the area and an appointment is booked to do the task. Both parties receive a photograph of the other, and volunteers wear identification badges around their necks. In addition, Puzzo and others try to touch base in-person with community members and volunteers. “This is a very vulnerable population, so we want to err on the side of caution to make sure they are safe,” says Puzzo. All community members and volunteers are fully insured against any type of liability.
After the community deed is completed, the community member and volunteer are asked to go back to the website and check off that the deed was done and leave a confidential comment. After completing three community deeds, volunteers receive feedback and a rating on a scale of 1 to 5.
“We are focused on empowering communities (using Connecticut as a beta site) by building relationships within every town in the state to support our organization,” Puzzo sums up. “Our mission is to help those who need it, linking existing community resources that are now separate. It’s all about nurturing our communities, and keeping everyone connected even if they can’t leave their homes.”
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