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Companion program helps seniors stay in their homes

September 05, 2012|By Ben Kleppinger | ben@theinteriorjournal.com
  • June and William Smith (names changed to protect their privacy) walk together in their Lincoln County home. The Smiths are two of around 50 people in Lincoln County who currently benefit from the Senior Companion program sponsored by Blue Grass Community Action Partnership.
Ben Kleppinger / ben@theinteriorjournal.com

June and William Smith have shared many memories during their many decades together.

Memories from when they met — he was a physical therapist and she came to him with back problems and headaches.

Memories of their four children, one of whom died from cancer in 1993 and three more who have each found their own unique place in the world.

Memories saved up in their Lincoln County home, which June designed herself on a budget, full of panoramic views of the Kentucky countryside.

Memories of William's love for sailboats and June's love of photography and art.

Memories from the early 1990s, when William had to have a brain tumor removed that had wrapped itself, according to doctors, "like wet tissue paper" around nerves controlling his hearing and speaking.

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Memories of Lincoln County school plays, which they now like to attend whenever the chance arises, even though William now attends in a wheelchair.

But among their myriad of memories, neither has experienced having to leave their home behind for a long-term care facility, something June said is due in no small part to the Senior Companion program serving Lincoln County.

"It helps me out a lot," she said. "It's been a real Godsend."

June and William — their names have been changed in this article to protect their privacy — are two of close to 50 people in Lincoln who benefit from the program, which pairs volunteers over the age of 55 with clients who need in-home assistance during their day-to-day lives.

The local Senior Companion program, which is sponsored by Blue Grass Community Action Partnership and funded substantially by Heart of Kentucky United Way and matching federal dollars, serves Lincoln and 9 other counties.

It's one of three Senior Companion programs in the state, which together serve fewer than a third of Kentucky's counties.

"Out of 120 counties, we are pretty fortunate," said Janet Gates, director of training and volunteer programs for the community action partnership. "Knowing that these volunteers are giving so much from their own lives to help somebody in need — it's just an amazing program."

Gates said volunteers go through 40 hours of training before they can be paired with a senior citizen in need.

Volunteers then usually spend 20 hours a week with their clients, cleaning, doing laundry, cooking, driving their clients to appointments or to get medicine, or even just providing some company.

The ultimate goal is to let seniors who would otherwise need nursing home care to stay in their homes, where they want to be, Gates said.

Along the way to that goal, there are many other benefits from the program, Gates pointed out.

Volunteers, who are often seniors living on a fixed income themselves, can receive a small stipend of $2.65 per hour and mileage reimbursement, giving them a little bit of disposable income that doesn't affect their eligibility for other financial assistance, she said.

And by keeping low-income seniors in their homes, the program prevents the cost of nursing home stays from falling on government social safety nets like medicare.

"When you think about the big picture, if we can save ten people a year from going into a nursing home … that's pretty huge because those costs of nursing home placements quickly turn into taxpayer dollars," Gates said.

'I swore she was an angel'

In the case of June and William Smith, after doctors removed the tumor from William's brain, it left half of his face paralyzed. Subsequent surgeries helped William recover substantially from that episode, but when doctors had to remove one and a half feet of his intestines, it left him unable to eat enough food orally.

June now feeds her husband, a World War II veteran who flew a B24 bomber in the Pacific theater, with Ensure and supplements through a gastric feeding tube.

When all this began, June said it was overwhelming. Mail was piling up inches deep on her dining room table, the house was in disarray and she was in bad condition, too, suffering from her own health issues.

"I was desperate by then," she said. "I was just eating peanut butter sandwiches and a glass of milk by then to survive and get by. … I didn't know how I was going to do it."

June said she and her husband would likely have both wound up in a nursing home had things continued the same way for much longer. But then she got a call from the Senior Companion program asking if she still needed help.

"I said, 'I sure do,'" Jane recalled with a smile on her face.

The Smiths knew about the program because June's mom had used a senior companion in her later years. June and William had been on the program's waiting list for several years, and now they were going to get some help putting their house and lives in order from a Senior Companion female volunteer.

"It was a life saver," Jane said. "I swore she was an angel when she came."

The Smiths also received help from a second Senior Companion volunteer, Stanford resident Deborah Stewart Moran.

When the Smiths original volunteer moved on, Moran remained with them and she has now been helping them out on a weekly basis for about two years.

"Deborah's just like part of the family. … She has been a real friend and encourager," Jane said, choking up. "Deborah makes me laugh. She's always got little stories to tell me. It's fun."

Moran, who recently helped organize a fish-fry fundraiser for the Senior Companion program in Stanford, said she volunteers because she's a "people person."

"I think I was an old person before I was old," she said. "I kind of have a passion for old people and children. Those are the ones that can't help themselves."

Moran said she likes how Senior Companion volunteers not only help their clients, like William, but also provide downtime for family members, like June, who would have to be providing 24/7 care if the volunteers weren't there.

Gates said providing that "respite care" for family members is another major component of the Senior Companion program.

Often, because low-income seniors can't afford to pay for in-home care, which costs on average $17 per hour, family members providing care is the only financially viable alternative to a nursing home.

"In many cases, clients and their family members would completely do without in-home services if the Senior Companion program wasn't there," Gates said.

Program good for volunteers, too

Gates said besides providing invaluable services for clients and their families, the Senior Companion program is beneficial for the physical and mental health of its volunteers as well.

Volunteers are required to get yearly physicals, which helps keep them healthy. And the programming at monthly training days helps keep volunteers' minds sharp, warding off dementia, Gates said.

Lincoln County resident Linda Bryant has been serving as a Senior Companion volunteer for three and a half years and said it has been a huge blessing on her life.

"I needed this program as much as (my clients) did because I lost my husband," she said. "After my husband passed, it was like my days were empty. I didn't know what to do."

Bryant said a friend at church turned her onto the Senior Companion program, and since then she's found value in getting up each day, knowing she's doing good for her clients.

"When I started this program — it's like I have the reason to get up and go because they need me," she said. "It's good to be needed. They look forward to us coming."

Eugene Gass lives in the Halls Gap area and has been volunteering with the Senior Companion program for more than six years.

Gass, who is 78, currently has two 82-year-old clients. His wife also volunteers in the program.

Gass said with one of his clients, much of what he does is sit and talk about days gone by.

"It's educational because if you get them talking about when they was younger, they'll tell you a lot of things," he said. "I think it's a good deal. It helps me a little and it also keeps them out of a nursing home. It's just a real good program."

200 on waiting list

Gates said the Senior Companion program currently has 95 volunteers serving about 200 clients in the 10-county service area.

Lincoln County has 18 of those volunteers, who provide service for 28 clients and their families.

With a waiting list of more than 200 people area-wide, there is a need for more volunteers, but there's also a need for more funding for volunteers, Gates said.

The Senior Companion program is part of the federal Senior Corps agency, which provides matching funds to local programs based on what local funding is made available.

Heart of Kentucky United Way provides funding for Lincoln, Garrard Mercer and Boyle counties, and funds are also raised through donations and fundraising events, Gates said.

In some counties, the Senior Companion program has maxed out the number of volunteers it can afford to give a stipend to, but in Lincoln County, stipend positions are still available.

Gates said volunteers must meet low-income requirements in order to receive the stipend, but more importantly, the volunteers have to have the right heart for the job.

If volunteers go into it for the money and don't have the right desire to serve, they often don't make a "good fit" for any clients, she said.

Bryant said for her, it really is all about being there for someone who needs you.

"I have the reason to get up in the mornings because I know I've got somebody to go take care of, to help, to share with," she said. "I just hope that when the times comes that I need somebody, I hope this program is still there and that I can have somebody stay with me."

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