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

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.

These fears had to do with whether the elderly could handle the physical demands of the job and whether their work might interfere with that of staff professionals.

"The program was so new then and such a major change that, of course, there were conflicts," says Betty Miller, the Developmental Services Department's statewide director for the senior program.

"There was concern over turf--whether the seniors would be doing the work of (staff) technicians," Miller says, "and concern that using older people might be more trouble than it was worth."

Such fears, administrators say, have long since faded. For one thing, they say, the duties of the senior volunteers are clearly spelled out.

"They are just that--volunteers and not professionals," Fairview's Jameson-Berg says, "and their duties are complementary, not conflicting."

Yet, even within such job limits, the seniors have proven to be a boon to the staff, administrators say. The seniors can play "vital roles in helping clients achieve degrees of improved mobility and speech," says Lloyd McInnis, director of a residential/nursing unit for children and teen-agers that uses 40 foster grandparents.

"Since they are with our clients every day and they establish such bonding relationships," McInnis says, "they often see behavioral patterns that are of crucial importance to the staff."

McInnis then adds with a grin: "And we're talking grandparents here. They are usually pretty outspoken. Believe me, they make sure the staff knows about such signs."

Preliminary findings in a major study suggest another program bonus: The Foster Grandparent and Senior Companion Program may be contributing to the quality--and prolonging--of life for its senior volunteers.

"Our data seem to be pointing to that conclusion," says Francis Crinella, a former executive director of Fairview and now director of the state's Developmental Research Institutes.

The 5-year study, keyed to the Fairview program and Orange County's senior community, is being conducted by the state research unit and UC Irvine under a grant from the National Institute of Aging. The final report, Crinella says, is due early next year.

Such findings come as no surprise to Fairview's senior volunteers--whose average age is 77 and who include more than 20 active volunteers who are in their 80s.

Four of the current volunteers have been in the Fairview program since 1973--Audrey Bessa, 76, Fay Reeves, 80, Rita Quick, 84, and Juan Estrada, 79.

Until a few months ago, the longest active participant was Winfred Armstrong. Now 89 and ailing, he was one of the 22 original volunteers when the Fairview program was launched in October, 1972.

"We're doing something to help other people," says 77-year-old Elizabeth Saunders, who joined the program 12 years ago. "We still have a function in life. The program gives us a reason for getting up in the morning. It gives us a reason for living."

But praise comes from yet another, and highly influential, group. These are the highly vocal parent advocacy organizations--such as the 600-member Fairview Families and Friends Inc.--that are adamantly behind the senior program.

"Years ago, there was some talk about cutting back these programs. But the state knew then--and it knows now--that our (parent) groups wouldn't stand for it," says the local parent group's vice president, Robert Lloyd, whose 26-year-old son, Larry, is a Fairview resident.

Supporters say that, despite cutbacks affecting many other health and social service projects, the state's developmental centers, including Fairview, have kept the senior volunteer program at much the same budget level. The current statewide budget is $3.25 million, underwritten by state and federal money; the Fairview allocation is $432,000.

In California as in other states, ACTION-affiliated foster grandparents work in facilities for the emotionally disturbed and for victims of child abuse or neglect, as well as those for the retarded. In Orange County, Fairview is the only such participant in the ACTION network.

"To us, the program has proven its worth a thousandfold," says Lloyd as he sits in a Fairview residence during a visit with Larry and his son's foster grandmother, 72-year-old Ann Missman.

Turning to Missman, Lloyd adds: "Someone like her is God-sent. We know that she is here when we can't be, giving love to Larry. It gives us peace of mind."

Still, vacancies in Fairview's Foster Grandparent and Senior Companion Program are common.

Currently, there are 20 to 30 vacancies for foster grandparents, despite recruitment efforts through senior community centers and job fairs and by word of mouth.

One reason is the natural attrition caused by volunteers moving out of the area, as well as volunteers who must leave for a more saddening reason--because of illness or physical decline.

Jameson-Berg says another, more recent trend, is the growing competition from other jobs--many offering far higher pay--that are now open to physically active seniors.

Finally, there is always the fact of having to work with the retarded.

Emotionally, this kind of program can be overwhelming: Nearly all of the 1,000 residents at Fairview suffer from severe or profound retardation and physical disabilities.

And no one underrates the impact of these afflictions on prospective volunteers.

"It's not easy, even if you've been here awhile," says one volunteer, 74-year-old Irene Sarver, who chairs the Sunshine Committee that keeps watch on those volunteers who become ill and are confined to their homes.

Sarver, a retired licensed vocational nurse, is one of only a handful of senior volunteers who have had experience working with the handicapped. A few other volunteers have disabled children of their own who are placed in Fairview or similar state facilities.

But most of the volunteers have had few, if any, direct encounters with the mentally disabled.

For this reason, it is not surprising that some prospective recruits decide against joining the program, says director Jameson-Berg. Yet, she adds, most of the seniors who reach the interviewing stage decide to stay.

"We give them all the support we can. If they make it through the adjustment period--usually the first 2 or 3 weeks--they are OK," Jameson-Berg says.

"The staff is here to help ease that transition. Best of all, so are the seniors who have been in the program awhile. They know better than anyone what the (newcomers) are going through."

Audrey Bessa, for one, remembers her first days at Fairview in 1973.

A widow with four grown children, she first learned of the program from an information booth at the Orange County Fair. She enrolled several months later when she turned 60, the minimum age for the senior volunteers.

But her introduction to the state facility, and to the retarded residents themselves, was devastating.

At first, she didn't think she could stay with the foster program, she recalls. "I took one look at the children--the terribly afflicted ones--and I was so shaken. I went home and cried my heart out."

But another volunteer counseled Bessa, urging her to "give it at least one more try."

"It takes time--a lot of time--but you begin to see beyond their afflictions, beyond the broken and damaged bodies," Bessa says. "You begin to see them --as real people, as someone who needs and gives love."

Initially, Bessa worked with younger teen-agers who were able to walk, engage in some speech and participate in the vocational workshops.

She remembers them all with affection. But most of all, she remembers Mark, who was 17 when she became his Fairview companion.

"He could barely speak, only a kind of slurring. But you could make out the words. He was always surprising us. We didn't think he could read, yet I was able to teach him to recognize the road signs on and outside the (Fairview) grounds.

"You never give up on them. That would be a terrible shame. Because people like Mark know more--are aware of much more--than we realize.

"He had wonderful parents. They visited him often, and all of us would go out to dinner. One Christmas, when his parents had to stay back East, I brought Mark home (under a separate holiday volunteer program) for my own family's Christmas."

Although some Fairview residents leave the foster grandparent program when they need more intensive care or become too old or hyperactive for the elderly volunteers to handle, others "graduate."

Mark was one of those.

Now, says Bessa with a huge grin, "he's 23 and mostly on his own. He's left Fairview, living in a home-care place in the community and working every day at a sheltered workshop."

Still, the program is shadowed by loss.

"We hear about (senior volunteers) who had to leave us--you know, because of a stroke or because they were put in a nursing home," Bessa says. "It's so sad."

Bessa was one of 33 foster grandparents featured in Nancy Reagan's 1982 book about the nationwide program. But at a Walt Disney World reunion last year, which the First Lady attended, "only seven of us showed up who were still in the program."

"We hear, too, about some of the clients we had when they were still children," she says, "about those who have since died or have gotten much worse. That really hurts."

But such feelings can be quickly replaced by joy.

"One day I was wheeling my Tara outside for some sun," says Bessa, who now cares for a severely disabled 4-year-old girl who is blind and fed through a tube.

"I saw this young man coming toward me, waving his arms, grinning away. Then he reached out and gave me the biggest hug. I was so happy because I hadn't seen him for some time. I gave him a big hug and kiss right back!"

It was Mark.

There is also Jacob.

This weekday afternoon volunteer George Bermudez is about to go on his personal mission.

The 68-year-old retired school custodian has finished his morning shift as a senior companion and as a volunteer in the program's dining room.

But at 12:30, as always, he goes to see Jacob.

"He always likes a special treat--sometimes applesauce, but this time I'm bringing him bananas," says Bermudez, who is also bringing Jacob a bundle of freshly laundered pajamas and shirts.

Bermudez drives to a residential unit across the Fairview grounds, then walks down the polished hallway to a room with four beds, a television set, prints of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco cable cars, and numerous stuffed animals atop dressers.

Jacob is waiting, sitting twisted in his wheelchair, chewing on his favorite rubber toy but showing his eagerness at seeing his father.

"He's been here (Fairview) ever since he was 8," says Bermudez, speaking softly, as he spoon-feeds the sliced bananas to his son. "We used to take him home (in Los Angeles County) a lot, but we can't now. It's too difficult for us to handle."

Now, the father says, "he's home just for the holidays. And, oh yes, his birthdays too. He's got one coming later this month--this April 28th."

Jacob Bermudez will be 35.

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