EAST MACHIAS, Maine — Alice White of Baileyville enjoyed a holiday meal recently — turkey with all the trimmings — surrounded by fellow volunteers with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Senior Companions Program. White is one of the program’s veterans: she has logged 28 years as a senior companion and cur-rently has seven seniors she visits on a regular basis.
This is the little known statewide program that links shut-ins and otherwise lonely and disconnected elderly people with volunteers to enrich their lives. White has walked dogs, taken seniors to doctors’ appointments or the bank or the post office, helped them grocery shop, and spent countless hours just talking quietly.
Surprisingly, White is 88 years old. Some of her seniors are folks she worked with in the 1940s in a Calais knitting mill. “We used to sew and put collars on shirts together,” she said.
But if you think White is helping these seniors for the good it does them, you would be wrong.
“It keeps me busy, keeps me going,” White admitted. “It’s as much for me as for them.”
White said that visiting other seniors and just talking with each other is vital. “All I have to do is say hello and a few words and have a smile,” she said.
“There are so many people out there that are terribly lonely,” Irene Diffin of Perry said. She has been a senior companion volunteer for 29 years.
“They are completely alone,” she said. “Many never see anyone but us. One lady, who is 92, asked me if I would cook her pancakes. That simple thing made her so happy.”
Deb Eckart is the Washington County extension educator that oversees the Senior Companion Program.
“This was originally a medical program, not a social program,” she explained. “Doctors used to write a prescription.”
Eckart said most of Washington County’s companions serve at least five homebound people. Five of the county’s companions have received the Governor’s Service Award for Volunteerism.
“This program serves people who are lonely and isolated,” she said. “And, in many cases, those who are forgotten. For an elderly woman to have someone come and take her to the hairdresser is priceless.”
Each volunteer serves about 20 hours each week and each gets a small stipend of $2.65 per hour. In Washington County, more than 350 seniors are visited each week by nearly three dozen volunteers.
“It’s just a matter of someone needing a friend,” Eckart said.
Diffin serves along with her niece, Barbara Brooks of Calais, and nephew, John Brooks of Robbinston. Together, the trio visit more than 26 people a week.
“One 92 year old told me ‘I’m so pleased you come and see me,’ “ John Brooks said. “A lot of these elderly don’t have enough money to live on. Companionship is one thing they really need. I drive 150 miles a week and it is so worth it.”
Barbara Brooks said two of her seniors are a 97-year-old woman and her legally blind daughter. Because she is trained in how to access services, Brooks was able to get the women some help to fix broken windows and pay some bills.”
“We are helping to make someone’s life just a little bit better,” Diffin said.
Joanne McMahon of Cooper has spent 17 years visiting nursing homes. “A lot of these people just sit in the hallway in their wheelchairs, sort of looking at the floor,” she said.
“I just stop and pat their shoulder and ask how their day is going,” McMahon said. She also started book carts in the homes and is pleased that many of the nursing homes now have their own libraries.
Maine’s Senior Companion Program is the only one that is sponsored by an educational institution — the University of Maine. “Usually the program is sponsored by a home health or health agency,” Eckart said. “We think it is a great fit here.”
One of the youngest people at the Senior Companion celebration was Corrie Hunkler of Beals Island. She just graduated in May from Northeastern University in Boston and is completing a year of service with AmeriCorps.
“I wanted to come home and serve,” she said. “I am researching how we still get volunteers, train them and keep the program running with funding cuts at every turn.”
Not only is the need for such programs at a peak in rural areas, Hunkler said rural areas get kind of lost in bureaucracy.
For more information about the Senior Companion Program, call Washington County Extension Office at 800-287-1542 or visit the office at 28 Center Street, Machias.