Senior Life: Little Brothers becomes seniors’ ‘best friend’

For some homebound seniors, isolation can be unbearable. But as people grow old that is sometimes exactly what happens as friends and family pass away.

The Little Brothers—Friends of the Elderly is a volunteer-based organization that attempts to break that isolation, bringing services to seniors with the warmth and care of a friend. Little Brothers is an international organization, but has a local branch in Boston that helps seniors in Mission Hill.

“We try to take the place of your best friend,” said Marty Guerin, executive director of the Boston branch, who noted some seniors outlive their best friends and families.

Little Brothers offers a variety of services to seniors, including making emergency food deliveries, helping with medical appointments and visiting seniors on a weekly basis. The organization also holds bi-monthly dinners and has holiday visits with volunteers bringing flowers and dinner. The holiday dinners are often cooked at Northeastern University. Guerin said seniors are “overwhelmed” with how nice people are with them.

Charlotte Payne, an 83-year-old who lives at the Benjamin Healthcare Center on Fisher Avenue in Mission Hill, said she enjoys the visits from Little Brothers.

“They bring me goodies and flowers,” she said.

Lisann Reiger is a full-time Little Brothers intern who came to the United States from Germany to do a year of volunteer service. She said she visits Payne for about 20 to 30 minutes once a week. Reiger said she often wheels Payne around in her wheelchair because Payne is no longer able to walk because of an accident.

“I can tell she is happy to see me,” said Reiger.

Reiger also visits with another senior, Elizabeth Sandborne, at the care center. She said Sandborn is “really active” and that they play bingo together.

“I love to see her,” said Reiger. “She talks all the time. She is a really funny person.”

Guerin said Little Brothers helps over 700 seniors in Boston. The seniors it helps earn less than $20,000 a year, live independently and have little or no family support, sometimes because the family lives too far away. She said the organization’s philosophy is “flowers before bread,” meaning that although Little Brothers does offer the food part, volunteers come first as friends.

Guerin, who has been with Little Brothers for 40 years, said no one is prepared for the isolation some seniors experience because of circumstance beyond their control. She said that although some seniors have homemakers, they are not there to be friends, listen to problems or play cards.

“That’s what people miss out on,” she said.

Guerin said that the friendship is sometimes what allows the seniors to open up and accept services. She gave an anecdote of a senior who didn’t trust anyone when he first joined Little Brothers, but now after three years, he is beginning to accept services.

“He trusts you and realizes you are not pandering to him,” said Guerin.

Little Brothers has only four staff members, but that is augmented with about 1,500 volunteers who spend at a minimum of four hours a month helping. Guerin noted that most volunteers spend more time than that. She said that volunteers range from college students to other seniors, including an 80-year-old woman who reads books to other seniors.

Guerin said there seems to be a call to action among young people. Whether or not it is derived from altruistic motives or because of the economy, she said she doesn’t care. That might be because her own beginnings with Little Brothers started from what she said was “the least altruistic of reasons.”

Guerin first joined Little Brothers in Chicago because she was trying to garner enough money to join her boyfriend, who was backpacking throughout Europe. She never made it there, opting instead to embark on a journey with Little Brothers.

Guerin said one case that was especially poignant was a senior who lived near Wrigley Field. She said the senior had “arthritis so bad that it hurt just to look at her.” Guerin would feed her twice a day, every day.

“I learned more about self-respect from her than anyone else,” said Guerin. “She managed to meet her needs for self-dignity by my acts.”

Guerin came east when the Boston branch opened in 1979. For more information, visit or call 617-524-8882.

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