‘It lightens my life’: Cumberland Friendly Visitor Program creates bonds across generations

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CUMBERLAND — They’ve barely known each other two months, but Liz Richter and Susan Smith already enjoy a tight bond.

Smith, who, like Richter is a Cumberland resident, is a volunteer through the town’s Friendly Visitor program, an arm of the community’s Aging in Place initiative. It’s one of several ways Cumberland’s senior population can continue to enjoy fruitful lives and stay involved with local activities.

Calling Smith her angel during an interview at her home March 8, Richter said, “She is absolutely wonderful. She just brought me lunch, and she’s taken me to concerts, and we’re doing a music program together.”

Although Smith has agreed through the program to visit Richter every other week, she has done so every Wednesday for a couple hours, much to Richter’s appreciation. They were matched up right before the holidays last year, and began meeting in January.

Richter was an employment counselor for the state Department of Labor, which was based at Brunswick Naval Air Station. After the base closed, she worked with Just Friends, a Yarmouth agency with a purpose similar to the Friendly Visitor program.

Richter would visit a 96-year-old woman in North Yarmouth, and would keep the retired Army nurse company three mornings a week.

But then a virus attacked Richter’s brain stem a few years ago, impacting the entire left side of her body and leaving her with balance issues. She gets around outdoors with a walker now.

Still, it could be worse. “I was supposed to not be here,” she said.

Likely due to an energy that belies her 75 years, Richter recovered her abilities to speak and walk. But the road back has stretched far.

“The days are long, home alone,” said Richter, who has a son in North Carolina. “And so I thought I’d try (the Friendly Visitor program) out.”

Smith, 50, who has a son of her own, saw signs about the program throughout the community, and also saw information about it in an electronic mailer sent by the town.

“I was looking for a way to contribute to the community,” said Smith, who moved to Maine three years ago. “When my parents were older and I was far away, I would have loved to have had a program like this in Massachusetts for them, and so I was eager to sign up.”

Smith called Richter “above and beyond anything I could have expected. She’s so much fun, and she’s so engaging and inquisitive about everything, and we’ve been having a great time; I’m so pleased. She is much younger than her chronological age would suggest.”

“Wow, I didn’t know that; thanks,” Richter chimed in.

“She’s an inspiration to me,” Smith smiled in response, noting that while she thought she was just going to be helping Richter, “I get so much out of our relationship and our friendship.”

Aside from attending two concerts together, they’ve been to each other’s homes, and Richter has accompanied Smith when she picks up her son at school. Their conversations touch on a variety of topics as broad as the places around the world each has visited.

“I may not have balance, but I can talk,” Richter pointed out.

Inspired by her son, a composer and conductor, Richter has undertaken with Smith a DVD course on the history and development of music.

“We’ve only done three classes so far,” Richter said.

There are 48 in all.

“We’ve got a ways to go,” Smith said.

And surely many great conversations to be had, and memories to be formed, along the way.

“It makes a huge difference for someone living alone,” Richter said. “It lightens my life.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Liz Richter, 75, left, and Susan Smith, 50, have formed a strong friendship in the two months they’ve known each other through Cumberland’s Friendly Visitor program.

Getting involved

To learn more about Cumberland’s Aging in Place program, and how to become involved, log onto aipcumberland.org, email aip@cumberlandmaine.com, or call 829-3409.

The initiative offers seniors a variety of services, such as rides, handyman assistance and visits.

To volunteer for Cumberland Area Rides, contact cumberlandrides@gmail.com or call 829-3367. Call 245-8033 to inquire about the Friendly Visitor and handyman programs.

For the Cumberland Fire Department’s call-in, home safety, and durable medical equipment services, email ebernier@cumberlandmaine.com or call 829-5421.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.