JoCare: Caring for Neighbours
Kerri Anne Brussen
Australians prefer a faith that “rolls up its sleeves.1”Recently at St Joseph’s in Melbourne an outreach program, JoCare, has been introduced to engage with older socially isolated persons within the local neighbourhoods. Drawing on a strong tradition of volunteering in Catholic parishes, the JoCare program seeks to involve volunteers from within our parish as well as our local community. Thus, for some, volunteering with JoCare is their faith in action, however, for others it may be a desire to do something for the common good – helping out a neighbour and building community.
The main focus of JoCare is volunteers visiting socially isolated older persons in their homes on a regular basis, either weekly or fortnightly. They share an activity such as the crossword, reading a book or doing a puzzle. Others go out for a gentle walk. We also run a monthly gathering where older persons from the parish and local area come together to play games and cards or just to have a chat. Furthermore, we have a number of volunteers who either regularly or on an ad hoc basis provide transport for short local trips to go shopping or to attend medical appointments and church services. After each visit, volunteers provide a brief written report to the JoCare coordinator2. Our first ‘neighbours’ 3 came from within the parish, but we are now receiving referrals from local council and other agencies who deliver in-home care to older persons.
Our volunteers undertake the visiting in pairs (where possible) to ensure the safety of all involved. It also provides continuity - if on occasions one volunteer is unavailable then the other can visit. The other benefit for JoCare is that as new volunteers become part of our program they are able to be mentored in their role by a seasoned volunteer.
To provide the best possible service to those who access the JoCare program we run a training day for our volunteers which involves looking at the world of volunteering and the gifts a person brings to volunteering. We examine volunteer rights, responsibilities, and boundaries4. We discuss privacy and harassment laws. But more importantly we have conversations concerning the mind-set that volunteers may bring when visiting an older person. We talk of orientating ourselves to the person. We ask our volunteers to give full attention to the person they are visiting, encountering them as they are, for who they are. We discuss the limitations of a person’s “life space”5. We consider this day of conversation an important aspect of the JoCare program. Volunteers also undergo police checks and working with children checks6.
Thus, we at JoCare seek to act responsibly toward our volunteers just as we strive to encourage our volunteers to act responsibly. The documentation for JoCare is written within the framework of The National Standards for Volunteer Involvement7. While, this standard is not mandatory for Australian organisations that engage with volunteers, by establishing procedures and policies for JoCare within this framework, all involved in the program can be assured that JoCare is run in accordance with the ‘best practice’ for volunteering. We consider documentation is important for volunteers just as it is for paid workers. Volunteers are also provided with a volunteer manual.
What follows is a rationale for JoCare and its implementation.
Theology of Ageing
The Hebrew Bible has at least two hundred and fifty references to old age, embracing views of human aging as an integral part of Israelite society and a blessing from God. The God of the Old Testament is sometimes known as a liberator of the poor and marginalised. “Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow,” (Is 1:17). The incarnation of Jesus authenticates the dignity and worth of human beings. As the early Christian church developed it gave considerable attention to the role and contribution of elders and widows in the faith community. They are owed respect as ageing persons and are called upon to mentor and provide spiritual guidance to other Christians (1 Tim. 5:1-3, 1 Tim. 5:9-10, Titus 2:3-5)8.
Christ gave two commandments. The first is to love God with all your heart, and the second is to love your neighbour as yourself (Mt. 22:36-40). This is what we seek to do at JoCare. Neighbourly love entails rising above the differences between persons and realising that each person is equal to the other; no-one has a greater value than another. A person's value and dignity belongs with who they are, not with what they can do.
Trinitarian theology offers an insightful window on relationships. The Trinity is profoundly relational with each of the three persons of the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, being unique but ultimately bonded to the other in relationship, signifying unity yet diversity. Each person of the Trinity is irreplaceable and cannot reach their potential unless in relationship with the others. This is the cornerstone of community love where our humanity is completed. God in his love takes creation into a personal relationship through the humanity of his Son and through the gift of the Spirit we become whole. Therefore, when we reach out to others in companionship our humanity is deepened by the humanity of the other9.
Social isolation has become a major health issue for older people living independently in local communities. One of the main reasons JoCare has initially focussed on older persons is to minimise this experience of isolation and provide a sense of connectedness10. Social isolation is often used interchangeably with loneliness. It can come about when an individual experiences a sense that they do not belong or are engaged with others. Social isolation may be voluntary where an individual may withdraw from contact with others. It may also be involuntary when an older person experiences feelings of loneliness through a lack of close friends or confidants11.
Social isolation in older persons and its related health implications has been the subject of much research. Contributing factors may be psychological and physical. Economic constraints, as well as environmental safety issues, also affect a person’s ability to maintain relationships with others. Increased drinking, smoking, a greater risk of suicide, re-hospitalisation, cognitive decline, mental health issues and cardiac heart disease are all factors bringing about serious health outcomes12.
Research shows that involvement with a religious organisation aids in significant ways to maintaining social networks. Other research has focussed on attendance at church services. Frequent attendees of religious services experienced lower rates of mortality than those who were infrequent participants13. One of the main emphases of the JoCare transport program is assistance to those requiring access to transport to attend church services. This enhances their continuing participation in their community.
While many parishes run programs similar to JoCare or undertake some aspects of the JoCare program within their parish, there is considerable evidence in support of extending such programmes beyond parish boundaries as JoCare does. Demographically, in Australia between 1994 and 2014, the percentage of the population aged 65 years and over increased from 11.8% to 14.7%. Between 1994 and 2014 the percentage of the population aged 85 years and over increased by 153% while the total population growth for Australia was only 32%14. These groups are expected to grow at an even greater rate over the next decade.
In recent times, a number of social determinants of health have been discerned. Two of these highlight the importance of social inclusion. The first emphasises being part of a community, where a person engages with a support network of family and friends. The second is the provision of and access to affordable transport. This allows a person to access services and social supports15.
Further, Australia is a signatory to The Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing which was adopted in April 2002. The key task of the plan is “building a society for all ages”. We are challenged to oppose discrimination towards the older person and to assist in creating a secure future, where the dignity of everyone regardless of age is respected16.
Pope Saint John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio notes "the life of the aging helps to clarify a scale of human values; it shows the continuity of generations and marvellously demonstrates the interdependence of God's people.”17
Pope Francis describes abandoning or discarding the elderly as a sin, commenting that a civilisation can be judged on its treatment of the elderly. He went further when he noted, "[t]he church cannot and does not want to conform to a mentality of intolerance, even less so one of indifference and disregard toward old age," concluding that "[w]here the elderly are not honoured there is no future for the young."18
Elizabeth MacKinlay observes that a “life without meaning is a life without hope”. Finding meaning is essential for human flourishing particularly when older persons undertake the “last great task of life”.19
Some have questioned the structure of JoCare and the requirements for volunteers to become part of the program. Our response is often a question. If your parent was receiving visitors in their home through a program such as JoCare, would you not feel more comfortable knowing that someone cared enough about your parent to ensure that the best possible practises had been undertaken prior to the commencement of the visiting schedule? While we agree a balance needs to be struck between regulations and care, we also need to be mindful of the contemporary world in which we live.
lrenaeus describes “the glory of God as human beings being fully alive.”20 At JoCare our vision is to enhance the lives of others, encouraging them to become ‘fully alive’. While our initial focus has been to augment the lives of socially isolated older persons in our local area, we anticipate expanding the program to include all those who for a variety of reasons find themselves isolated within their communities.
Kerri Anne Brussen is the JoCare Coordinator at St Joseph's Parish, Malvern. JoCare is a free service supported by St Joseph's Malvern and Cabrini Health.
 N. Connolly, “New Evangelisation in Australia,” SEDOS Bulletin 45 (2013): 128-139 at 129.
 These reports are written within the limits of the privacy regulations.
 Those who access the JoCare program are known as ‘neighbours’. We chose this name as our vision is to create neighbourhoods where people are connected. Clients, patrons or customers did not fit our vision.
 Catholic Community Services NSW/ACT, http://catholiccommunityservices.com.au/volunteer-log7.in/video-index/video-personal-and-professional-boundaries. This is an excellent video demonstrating the boundaries between a volunteer and those they are assisting.
 “Life space” reflects the range of a person’s physical and social mobility and how this range is impacted by gender, physical functioning, cognitive functioning, financial means, culture and the ability to drive. Julie E Byles et al., “Life space and mental health: a study of older community-dwelling persons in Australia,” Aging and Mental Health 19, no. 2 (2015): 98-106.
 In Australia these are legal checks which provide information on a person’s criminal record.
 Volunteering Australia, “The National Standards for Volunteer Involvement,” Volunteering Australia, http://www.volunteeringaustralia.org/policy-and-best-practise/national-standards-and-supporting-material/ (accessed May 28, 2015).
 DeeAnn Klapp, “Biblical Foundations for a Practical Theology of Aging,” Journal of Religious Gerontology 15, no. 1-2 (2003): 69-85 at 69-77.
 Rosalie Hudson, “Ageing and the Trinity, Holey, Wholly, Holy,” in Ageing, Spirituality and Well-being, ed. Albert Jewel (United Kingdom: Jessica Kingsley Pty Ltd, 2003), 86-100.
 Robyn A. Findlay, “Interventions to reduce social isolation amonst older people: where is the evidence?” Ageing and Society 23 (2003): 647-658 at 648.
 A. P. Dickens et al., “Intervention targeting social isolation in older people: a systematic review,” BMC Public Health 11 (2011): 1-22 at 2.
 Nicholas R. Nicholson, “A Review of Social Isolation: An Important but Underassessed Condition in Older Adults,” Journal of Primary Prevention 33 (2012): 137-152 at 137, 140-5.
 Ibid., 143-4; Simone Couzens et al., “Social Participation and Depression in Old Age: A Fixed Effects Analysis in 10 European Countries,” American Journal of Epidemiology (2015): doi: 10.1093/aje/kwv015
 Australian Bureau of Statistics, “3101.0 - Australian Demographic Statistics, Jun 2014,” Australian Bureau of Statistics, http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/0/1CD2B1952AFC5E7ACA257298000F2E76?OpenDocument (accessed May 25, 2015).
 Inner South East Partnership in Community and Health, Population Health Atlas Planning Resource, (LDC Group: Melbourne, 2013), 7.
 P. Theron, “Practical theologians'calling to serve in the field of gerontology,” Theological Studies 69 (2013): 1-7 at 1-2.
 Pope John Paul II, Familiaris consortio, Holy See November 22, 1981, n. 27, http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_19811122_familiaris-consortio.html (accessed May 24, 2015).
 Pope Francis, “Vatican Insider, Francis: It is a sin to abandon or discard the elderly,” La Stampa (2015), http://vaticaninsider.lastampa.it/en/the-vatican/detail/articolo/francesco-francis-francisco-39513/ (accessed March 8, 2015).
 Elizabeth MacKinlay, “Baby Boomers Ageing Well? Challenges in the Search for Meaning in Later Life,” Journal of Religion, Spirituality and Aging 26 (2014): 109-121 at 115.
 Stephen Ames, “Finding the way - A Theology of Ageing,” Benetas, http://www.benetas.com.au/research-opinion/research-projects/finding-way-theology-ageing#.Vi7W3bcrKUk (accessed May 15, 2015).