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PAIR OF HEARTS : Matching Up Senior Citizens With the Mentally Retarded Helps Both Enjoy Better Lives

April 22, 1989|HERMAN WONG | Times Staff Writer

Down the long corridor of spotlessly gray linoleum, past walls brightened with flowery prints and seascape reproductions, Rita Quick is taking Derya on their morning outing.

It is a beautiful day, the sunlight covering the vast grounds of the Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa, a cooling breeze breaking lightly over Derya's face.

But the 19-year-old girl remains inert: She makes no sound. Her eyes remain closed. Her arms are immobile, legs useless. A towel bib covers the stomach tube through which she is fed.

Yet Derya's friend is by her side. The white-haired Quick, remarkably fit for 84, is always cheerful, always chatting--more than enough animation and ebullience for the two of them.

"Oh, isn't it lovely out here, Derya?" Quick doesn't expect a response, but her voice is warmly attentive, her eyes searching for any response, no matter how minute.

Taking one of Derya's arms, Quick rubs it soothingly. Then she takes a tissue and wipes the saliva from Derya's mouth and gently runs her hand across Derya's forehead.

"Sometimes," says Quick, who has visited Derya every weekday morning for 6 years, "she seems to understand. She shows a smile."

But not today.

Across the grounds, other elderly women and men--wearing the same blue jackets and identification tags--are pushing other wheelchairs, comforting other children and teen-agers.

"They know we're here and that we love them and care for them," Quick says. "Oh, Derya doesn't have to say anything. I just know. . . ."

For a moment, Quick falters.

Then, regaining her composure, she says with forcefulness: "We've learned something being here. We don't see anything here but the beauty of another human being."

There is an irony that underscores the volunteer companion program that has brought senior citizens like Rita Quick to Fairview, the state-run residential and clinical complex off Harbor Boulevard.

Fairview's "Foster Grandparent and Senior Companion Program"--launched 16 1/2 years ago as part of sweeping efforts to de-institutionalize the statewide system for treating the developmentally disabled--has brought together an unusual pairing.

It has resulted in people from one of society's peripheral groups--the often ignored lower-income elderly--helping care for one of the most shunned and stigmatized of all groups--the mentally retarded.

To administrators in the statewide system, such a pairing has proven to be unusually successful.

"No one really loses in this kind of situation," says Hugh Kohler, executive director at Fairview, one of seven such facilities operated by the state Developmental Services Department.

"The seniors are doing something that is vital and productive," Kohler says, "and our clients are benefiting from this kind of day-to-day, one-on-one relationship."

Fairview has about 130 senior volunteers--all of whom are physically active, at least 60 years old and classified as lower income, which means their annual income cannot exceed $9,000 for a single person or $16,450 for a couple.

Although the job is basically a volunteer one, the state offers certain incentives:

Reimbursement stipends of $2.20 an hour for 4-hour shifts each weekday and $2 a day for transportation, plus hot lunches.

Access to health services, including annual physical examinations, and, should a volunteer become ill, monitoring by the center staff to ensure that the volunteer is getting proper food and care at home.

The seniors' duties at Fairview are elementary and routine--at least on paper.

Each volunteer is assigned two Fairview residents and spends 2 hours a day with each one. While most residents in this program are under 21 and a few are infants, others range in age to their late 60s.

Volunteers usually work from 7 to 11 a.m. and help dress and feed the residents, take them on walks and canteen breaks and to clinical appointments, vocational workshops and sensory-therapy sessions.

Administrators say the volunteer companions also bring an instinctive quality to their work.

These volunteers, says Fairview program director Tamera Jameson-Berg, "are just doing what comes naturally--being loving, nurturing grandparents."

Fay Reeves agrees. "We read, sing, talk to them. We're always encouraging them--we never quit on them," says Reeves, 80, who has been companion the longest to any one Fairview resident--16 years with Lori, 28.

"We're like family to them," she says.

Some Fairview residents haven't had visits from relatives in years. "For these clients," Reeves says solemnly, "we seem to be their only family now."

The foster grandparent program has won much praise, some from no less a booster than Nancy Reagan. In 1982 she co-authored "To Love a Child," a book that cited case histories--including that of Fairview volunteer Audrey Bessa--from the nationwide foster grandparent program created in 1965 by the federal volunteer agency ACTION.

Yet, initially, there was much statewide criticism.

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