MADISON, Maine — It is hard to say who gets more out of the arrangement, the elderly volunteers or the elderly clients they befriend. And that’s really the point of the Senior Companion program, which this year celebrates its 30th anniversary serving the people of Maine.
The program connects volunteers, who must be 55 or older and low-income, with homebound clients who also are senior citizens and, in many cases, ill or disabled.
“We have a lot of volunteers who say they just don’t want to sit at home and watch the world go by,” said Ann Swain, statewide director for the program at the Cooperative Extension Service at the University of Maine. “They start out by thinking they’re going to help somebody else and end up feeling they get more out of it than they put in.”
A case in point: volunteer Gloria DiNicola, 66, of North Newport. Disabled, low-income and retired herself, DiNicola keeps a small farm with a herd of French Alpine dairy goats, a few rare-breed turkeys and some chickens. She looks after the place herself, milking the goats and gathering the eggs. She also hosts regular spinning and knitting groups in her home.
“I like to keep active,” she said. But when DiNicola was laid up a few years back, she was grateful for the response of her friends and neighbors, who pitched in to keep the little farm running until she got back on her feet. Their efforts prevented her from losing her home and her animals, she said.
“People came out of the woodwork,” she said. “They did all the things I couldn’t do. That experience made me aware of how precarious it is to live alone.”
One day in her doctor’s waiting room, DiNicola picked up a brochure about the Senior Companion volunteer program. She thought back to her own experience and felt it was time to pass on some of the kindness and support she had received.
“I thought this was a way I could help keep people in their homes,” she said.
‘She is a wonderful friend’
Today, DiNicola has three clients, including 84-year-old Thelma Lawrence of Madison. The two women originally met nearly a decade ago, when Lawrence participated in a knitting group at DiNicola’s farm, bringing her hand-spun Angora rabbit yarn with her.
“She knit the most stunning socks,” DiNicola said, grinning at the recollection. “We all coveted those socks. And nine years later, I became her senior companion.”
For about three years now, DiNicola has driven the bumpy, 40-minute route from her home to Henderson’s every other week or so, just to visit.
“She is a wonderful friend,” Lawrence said. “She gives me encouragement.”
The two women share their latest knitting and spinning projects. They have lunch. They tell stories about the animals they love — goats, horses, rabbits, chickens, and oh, yes, dogs.
Up until quite recently, Lawrence raised dogs.
“First it was Dobermans, but they weren’t selling too good, so then I went into Shih Tzus,” she said. Then it was Great Danes; the last litter of pups went to homes this past spring, just before Henderson fractured her hip and pelvis while cleaning out her chicken house.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess I picked up something too heavy.”
Just a few days ago, Lawrence returned home from an extended hospitalization followed by a stay at a Bangor rehabilitation facility. She is using a walker now to get around, thumping it clumsily up and down the steps in her tidy home. A delivery driver has dropped off an electric scooter for her to try, but you don’t get the feeling it’s going to see much use. DiNicola is on hand to help her self-reliant friend get settled in.
Lawrence’s daughter lives up the road and a son also lives nearby. They both are supportive and involved in their mother’s life. But it was DiNicola who stepped in last winter when Lawrence’s furnace stopped working and got a new-used one installed at almost no cost. DiNicola applied for the small grant that paid to remodel an attached shed into a sunny first-floor bedroom. When Lawrence’s pain kept getting worse following the chicken-house incident, it was at DiNicola’s urging that doctors finally diagnosed and treated the fractures she had sustained. And it was DiNicola who understood that her friend’s medications at the rehab center were keeping her too sedated to participate in the physical therapy that would rebuild her strength and let her go home.
“I never realized how vulnerable you are when you’re in a situation like that,” DiNicola said. “And if people don’t have friends or family, what happens then?”
Measuring the value of a bright spot in their day
The federally funded Senior Companion program got started as a pilot project in the western states in the late 1970s. The first site east of the Mississippi River was established in Washington County in 1981, according to Debra Eckart, the program administrator for Maine.
“The goal was to help keep the elderly in their homes and give the volunteers a sense of purpose,” she said.
Washington County remains an active site, where the longest-serving volunteer companion recently died at age 89 and another is still serving at age 90, Eckart said.
Statewide in Maine, there are about 128 senior companions looking in on about 560 clients in 14 counties. (These numbers do not include Cumberland and York counties, where the program is run through the People’s Regional Opportunity Program and not the Cooperative Extension Service.) Volunteers receive a tiny stipend of $2.65 an hour — up from $2.10 in 1981 — and can’t bill the program for more than 20 hours a week. They also get a small reimbursement for their mileage.
Last year, the Senior Companion program in Maine paid out about $300,000 in stipends and mileage. By helping to keep frail seniors out of assisted living facilities and nursing homes, Eckart says the program saved an estimated $6 million.
Although it is hard to measure the real value of “soft” programs like this, researcher Sandy Butler at the University of Maine has tried. From 2001 to 2003, Butler interviewed 34 volunteer companions and 32 clients in Washington County, asking them detailed questions about their experiences.
“For clients, the companionship was really important and helped them stay in their homes,” she said. “The visits were the bright spot in their day and reduced their anxiety.”
For volunteers, she said, “the ability to give was very rewarding.” They valued the companion relationship as much as the clients did, Butler said, and the commitment helped keep them physically active and engaged in the community. In addition, she noted, the small stipend the volunteers receive often makes a real difference in making ends meet.
“To me, it seemed like a very small investment for something that is so valuable,” she said.
To learn more about the Senior Companion program, visit umaine.edu/seniorcompanion or call 800-287-0274.