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Make volunteering for seniors the best gift to give this year

The national economic downturn has caused people in Queens to rethink their spending on holiday gifts. But the greatest gift this holiday season may be time spent volunteering for an elderly neighbor or community and faith−based organizations that serve seniors throughout the borough.

This gift goes beyond the holiday season.

There are about 381,000 people over 65 living in Queens — a growing number. Following a national trend, an increasing number of older borough residents are choosing to age in their homes and avoid institutionalization. This is because most cannot afford the luxury of assisted living. Like many of us, seniors want to remain close to their families, friends and communities.

While this might seem the optimal choice, there are downsides to aging at home. Many seniors are left behind as loved ones relocate or pass away. Those with limited vision or mobility are no longer able to drive. This can make a simple trip, to the grocery store or doctor’s office or a friend’s home, a challenge. A growing number of frail elders are unable to use public transportation.

The isolation of these seniors can often lead to depression and malnutrition and long−term health problems, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.

We cannot individually solve the myriad problems facing Queens’ aging population, but each of us has the power to make a difference in the life of an older person.

Volunteer−based programs, such as friendly visits, bring weekly visitors into the homes of isolated seniors. These volunteers provide comfort and companionship — a simple conversation over a meal or cup of tea can mean a lot. Visiting volunteers can also perform small tasks around a senior’s house, read to the visually impaired and escort seniors on shopping trips or for walks in the park.

Volunteerism is a two−way street: Those who give of their time to lonely seniors enjoy the bonds they form with their older friends. They also gain a sense of satisfaction from knowing that they are making a difference in the lives of the seniors they serve.

Opportunities like friendly visiting and other volunteer−based programs that serve Queens seniors are gifts that require no special wrapping paper or fancy bows. But these gifts will have a profound and positive impact on the quality of life of our aging population and will further Queens’ vision of creating a community for all ages.

The author is the executive director of DOROT, a senior services agency that provides support and resources to seniors and their caregivers in the city.

Vivian Fenster Ehrlich

Manhattan

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