Case-aid service can pave way to social work career

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Volunteering for the Jewish Family and Children's Services Case Aid program for seniors sometimes means becoming a client's friend.

For many case aid workers, in fact, making that personal connection is the full reward for becoming involved.

Though a social worker may arrange for elderly clients to receive financial management or have meals delivered at home, the case aid volunteer is the one who takes them shopping, drives them to doctor appointments, helps them buy new clothes or even moves them into a new residence.

For some volunteers, case aid is the first step toward becoming a social worker. About five or six people have used the 10-year-old program to help pave their way into graduate school, according to Debbi Goodman, the S.F.-based JFCS senior department coordinator of volunteer services.

Since schools for social work often want candidates who have field experience before entering their program, more and more people have been coming to agencies like JFCS for hands-on experience.

Someone who can establish a personal rapport with a client — and do it in a short period of time — will be exposed to many facets of working with the elderly, Goodman said.

In the 1-1/2 years that Gretchen Rootes has been volunteering, for example, she's done a little of everything — from working with someone over a long term, to seeing someone only once or twice to assist with a specific errand. She helped one client create a filing system. She joined another in cleaning out his garage and retrieving some of his artwork. She once logged personal estate items into a computer for a woman preparing for death.

"I got to see what people really needed, and got a good sense of what's out there," said Rootes, 28, enrolled since last fall in the master's program at U.C. Berkeley's School of Social Welfare. Rootes, who lives in San Francisco, still volunteers intermittently for case aid and keeps in touch with a few former clients.

Susan Fent, another San Franciscan, received her master's degree in 1992 and has been a full-time social worker at JFCS for nearly four years. She still works with the same client she met through the agency in 1987, before she started graduate school. Her case-aid client, who is visually impaired, also has arthritis.

After nine years of helping the woman shop, taking her to the bank, and generally giving her the opportunity to get out of her apartment and talk to people, the two have become close.

"She has family only outside the country," Fent said. "I became one of her surrogate family members."

Joan Eichler, one of the longest-serving volunteers at case aid, is not a social worker and has never thought about becoming one. She retired 10 years ago from her job as a physical therapist at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco.

"I kind of feel like I want the time to do my own things like tennis and working out," said Eichler, 53, who lives in San Francisco. "But part of the day I need to give something back to the community."

Since becoming a case aid volunteer in 1987, Eichler has tackled a variety of tasks. She has explained to people how they should take their medicine. She has helped them write checks to charitable causes. She once simply took a woman for a stroll — a brave step forward, as the woman had always taken walks with her husband and needed to get used to going without him after he died.

Overall, Eichler tries to help people live independently. If the elderly can stay in their own homes, Eichler believes, they will live longer.

"If you ever go into a nursing home, you see what happens to people. They lose control over their own lives," she said.

Sometimes, especially for older folk, to remain independent requires a little dependence, however. In that case Eichler is more than willing to help, especially if "a few hours of my time makes it somewhat easier for that person to stay at home."