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RSVP: Friends in time of need

WORTHINGTON -- Ken Thompson and his wife, Helen, were once avid mall walkers -- they'd go every day, seven days a week. But after she returned home from a brief hospitalization, she could no longer get around without the aid of a walker.

Helen needed someone to be home with her at all times -- a necessity sure to be a life-changing event not only for her, but for her husband as well.

During his wife's hospital stay, Thompson learned of RSVP's respite care program. RSVP matches volunteers with those who are homebound, allowing the caregiver an opportunity to get out of the house and have some time for themselves.

The program has been a godsend for people like Thompson, who attends heart rehab three times per week.

"It gives me a chance to be gone for an hour and have someone take care of her," he said. "My neighbors all volunteered, but I didn't want to put the pressure on them."

RSVP has offered respite care for three years, thanks to a grant received through the Minnesota River Area Agency on Aging. While the program has grown slowly, executive director Mary McLaughlin said RSVP now boasts more than 50 trained volunteers to provide respite care for caregivers in the six-county area of southwest Minnesota.

She said the program has been slow in growing because most people aren't aware RSVP offers the service. In addition, the length of time it takes for a volunteer to be trained and matched with a recipient can be a barrier. McLaughlin said she doesn't hear about a family's needs in many cases until it becomes a situation where the care is needed immediately.

"You can't ask today and get help tomorrow," added Greta Van Der Brink, Rock County RSVP coordinator.

Respite care service is available to anyone in need or who doesn't require the full-time care provided in a nursing home, according to Nobles County RSVP coordinator Joanne Bartosh.

"This is aging in place," Bartosh said. "It's non-professional help that can keep a person in their home a little longer."

The respite program is geared to match a volunteer with a care recipient who has similar interests -- whether it be playing cards or table games or simply conversing over a cup of coffee. Volunteers are available for up to three hours a day, three days per week, depending on the needs of the caregiver.

Unlike other RSVP programs, respite care volunteers don't need to be age 55 or older -- as long as either the caregiver or the care receiver is age 60 or older.

Karen Christensen, RSVP coordinator in Redwood County, said volunteers who provide respite care must go through between two to three hours of training before they can work with a family. Volunteers are asked to simply keep the care recipient company -- they cannot dispense medication, but can remind the care recipient to take his or her required doses if needed.

For Thompson, just having someone come into his home to keep his wife company is enough.

"It allows me to keep my health without a worry about what's going on at home," he said. "There isn't much that she (Helen) can do, it's just company for her."

Thompson said in the five weeks he's used the RSVP respite care program, about five different volunteers have come to the home. Without them, he isn't sure what he would have done.

"I suppose I'd have to hire someone to take care of her while I am gone," he said. "I don't think I could give up exercising three days per week."

For Thompson, who has had two open heart surgeries, the exercise is important -- as well as the time to get out of the house. He also said it's good to see people come to their house three days per week.

"It's a group of very nice people who help others," he said of RSVP's respite care program.

RSVP is in search of both volunteers to provide respite care, and families in need of respite services. Individuals may contact their county coordinator or call the regional office in Worthington at 372-7374.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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