Council on Aging volunteer a friend to the lonely

Myra Grist was a volunteer with the now-defunct Friendly Visitor program that paired seniors with volunteers. But when the program ended, her friendship didn't.|

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When Myra Grist moved to Santa Rosa from Oahu, Hawaii, in 2007, it was to be closer to her daughter and granddaughters.

She was thrilled about that part of the move, but she wasn't so excited about the part where she didn't really know many people. So she decided to take matters into her own hands.

'I decided I needed to do something,' she said.

That's how she found the Council on Aging, and its now-defunct Friendly Visitor program, which existed to pair seniors with volunteers and helped combat the loneliness that sometimes accompanies the aging process.

Michelle Leonard, program manager at the Council on Aging, said the Friendly Visitor program had to shut down because of a lack of funding. It was, she said, one of the most important resources that the council offered for senior citizens.

Through the program, Grist, now 72, was paired up with a gentleman named Howard Doughty.

Even though the Friendly Visitor program was phased out shortly after her and Doughty's introduction, the two maintained a close friendship for six years.

'She made a huge difference in his life,' Leonard said.

'Michelle called me up one day and said she'd found a file on a man whose name was Howard Doughty,' Grist said. 'She said he was in his 80s, and that he was a widower, and that his daughter had written to say he was very lonely.'

Doughty's wife, Helen, had died of Alzheimer's disease, and once he and Grist were introduced, the two became fast friends.

'Howard was a goer,' Grist said. 'He loved to go and do things, but he was lonely not to be able to do those things with anyone. ... He knew I was lonely, too.'

Isolation and loneliness are some of the top problems that otherwise healthy seniors face, Leonard said, which is why people like Grist, the ones who stick around, the ones who try, are so important to the county.

According to the Council on Aging, in Sonoma County about 81,000 people are 60 or older, and the fastest growing population group is those 65 and older. The state Department of Finance expects that demographic to make up 20 percent of the population of California by 2030.

The Council on Aging also has a Meals on Wheels program and, together, Grist and Doughty made deliveries. The service feeds about 1,800 people five days a week, according to its website, and most of them are isolated and lonely themselves.

There would be days when Grist and Doughty would go on drives together, or they'd go dancing.

'I'd say, 'Howard, what about lunch?' Or, 'How about a drive to Bodega Bay?' ' Grist said. 'And we'd go. We ended up investigating a number of places together that I'd never been to.'

Doughty died just this year, at age 90.

'We had a funeral celebration, and I couldn't believe the number of people who came,' Grist said.

Now that Doughty is gone, Grist continues working with the Council on Aging, most often as a dining assistant at the Sebastopol location.

'Howard just became a good buddy,' she said. 'If I was lonely, I'd pick up the phone and I'd just say, 'Hey Howard, what do you want to do today?' I was blessed.'

It sounds like Doughty was blessed, too.

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 521-5205 or christi.warren On Twitter @SeaWarren.

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