'I don't want to die alone' plea prompts Texas woman to help the elderly

CNN Hero Inez Russell
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Story highlights

  • CNN Hero Inez Russell's nonprofit has helped 22,000 elderly or disabled people do things they can't do for themselves
  • More than 11 million senior citizens live alone in the United States
  • Do you know a hero? Nominations are open for 2015 CNN Heroes

Waco, Texas (CNN)Inez Russell grew up believing that everyone had someone to care for them. But in 1989, she learned that was not the case.

While visiting her father in the hospital, Russell heard a woman screaming.
"I found this lady who was close to 90, and she was crying," Russell said. "She grabbed my arm and said, 'I'm dying, and I don't want to die alone. Please don't leave me.'"
    That encounter led to another, then another. Russell began seeing firsthand the countless struggles faced by elders living alone.
    One woman lived in the dark because she had no one to change the light bulbs. Another couldn't remember the last time she had a meal. And Russell said many were taken advantage of financially, losing their money and their homes.
    In the United States, more than 11 million senior citizens live alone.
    The elderly are often invisible and forgotten, especially with so many in nursing homes or living alone in their own homes.
    And it's a population that is growing fast. By 2030, one in five U.S. citizens will be 65 or older, according to U.S. Census Bureau projections.
    To help this frail and vulnerable population, Russell started Friends for Life. The nonprofit enlists advocates and friends for seniors in Texas who need a helping hand.
    Since 1986, Russell and her group have helped 22,000 people navigate a variety of difficulties.
    CNN sat down with Russell to talk about her work. The following is an edited version of the conversation.
    CNN: What are some of the things your volunteers do to help the elderly?
    Inez Russell: We try to do the things that they can't do for themselves anymore. That might mean taking them to the doctor, taking them grocery shopping or grocery shopping for them, run errands. Sometimes we do minor house repairs, paint their house, or mow their yard.
    I can't think of anything that we wouldn't do to help a senior. We want to help people live independently as long as they can, so they can stay in their own homes.
    Many of our volunteers feel like they are family to these folks. And I think our clients feel that way, too.
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    CNN: Sometimes your group takes on huge responsibilities, too, like medical decisions. How does that work?
    Russell: Seniors can be at risk for a lot of reasons. One is that they become more fragile and less able to defend themselves. They are often taken advantage of, sometimes because they want a friend so badly that they'll listen to anyone.
    We serve as legal guardian for people who are not able to make decisions for themselves. We will decide where they live, make sure they are clothed and fed, even meet them at the emergency room at 2 a.m., if needed.
    In our money management program, we help with bill paying; we can intercede with creditors. We make sure they're paying the least amount for services and products. We work to make sure that they don't end up paying fees and late charges.
    By managing their money, they end up having more money than they have had in the past, and they can make their checks go a lot farther.
    CNN: How did you first discover this need?
    Russell: I was visiting my father in the hospital. I heard a woman screaming, and I went to see what was wrong. I found this lady who was close to 90, and she was crying. She grabbed my arm and said, "I'm dying, and I don't want to die alone. Please don't leave me."
    So I stayed, and she told me her whole life story. She had children and grandchildren, but no one was coming to see her anymore. She was sure that meant she was dying; if she was going to live, people would still be coming.
    I bought her a stuffed animal. I got her some flowers. But mostly I listened. She decided I wouldn't be doing all that if she were dying. She got well and went home.
    Then the nurses said, "There's another lady that doesn't have anyone. Would you visit her?" And I did. The same thing happened.
    I just started wondering who helps these people who don't have a support system. And I couldn't find anything.
    CNN: Why is it that so many elderly are alone and more vulnerable today?
    Russell: Our society has become very mobile, and their families are now far away. And even though they care about their elderly family, they're not able to do the things for them that these folks need. And that means that sometimes a very small problem becomes huge because there's no one that they can call.
    But these people often don't have anybody. So if we can make friends with these people, we can build bridges. Then they'll know who they can call to get help.
    We all need somebody who can advocate for us. We all need somebody who cares and can come to our aid if we need help.
    Want to get involved? Check out the Friends for Life's website at friendsforlife.org and see how to help.