Cooperative Extension Senior Companions help elders live
independently in their communities
About the Photo: Charlotte Fitzsimmons pays an afternoon
visit to her neighbor Iona. Typically, the two talk over a cup of
tea and a snack, discussing their families, church and "the
conditions of the world."
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The three women have been playing
rounds of Skip-Bo for more than an hour, waiting for Bobby to pull in
from Machias with lunch. Across the room, two others sit and converse
over a card table strewn with jigsaw puzzle pieces.
Only five elders have ventured from their nearby homes this Friday to
partake in what's on the menu: spaghetti, served with green beans, roll
and dessert. But wait until Monday, assures Charlotte Fitzsimmons, when
Meals for Me is serving meat loaf and the planned event is Beano. As
many as a dozen folks may be here for lunch.
Today's small turnout doesn't disappoint Charlotte. In addition to
serving five meals in the community room, there are 12 going out to
shut-ins. She understands why some people aren't here: fear of falling
on wet sidewalks, ill health that keeps them indoors, times when
solitude is preferable to socializing.
As a Senior Companion, Charlotte has already made mental notes about
those in her care and plans her day accordingly. She'll take Viola's
lunch to her home in Jonesport, and, later, she'll drop by and see Iona,
a neighbor in the housing complex who is home with a cold. Lena, who is
helping to set up the lunch table and serve spaghetti, will join
Charlotte and her 6-year-old great-granddaughter when they go shopping
"When I wake up in the morning, I have something to get up for," says
Charlotte, 79, a volunteer in the University of Maine Cooperative
Extension Senior Companion Program for the past eight years. "Sure, some
days I think I'd like to lie there a while longer, but I know someone's
waiting on me. Being a Senior Companion gives me a purpose in life."
Charlotte Fitzsimmons is one of 100 Extension Senior Companions working
in 13 of Maine's 16 counties, serving 615 seniors who benefit from
in-home visits and assistance with such tasks as grocery shopping, bill
paying and transportation to medical appointments. Each of the
volunteers, age 60 and older, living on limited incomes, spends up to 20
hours weekly with up to six seniors, helping them maximize, maintain or
regain their independence.
Family members, or health and community service providers, often refer
adults who are homebound or isolated to the program. There is no income
eligibility, only the prospect that "friendly visiting" by a peer would
make a difference in their lives.
The Senior Companion Program is federally funded through the Corporation
for National and Community Service, and supported locally by fundraising
efforts. University of Maine Cooperative Extension administers the
program in partnership with more than 20 community agencies across
Maine. Last year, Extension's Senior Companion Program observed its 25th
The program is characterized as "asset-based community development." The
ever-increasing senior population is seen as an asset that can help
communities deal with issues related to the dramatically shifting
Nationwide, the number of people 65 and older is growing three times
faster than the younger generation. U.S. Census figures show that, with
its aging population, Maine is now the "oldest" state demographically,
according to Lenard Kaye, director of the University of Maine Center on
Aging. Almost 15 percent of the state's population — 200,000 residents —
is age 65 and older. By 2020, it is estimated that one in five Mainers
will be 65 and older. The fastest growing segment is the "oldest old" —
those 85 and older.
In Washington County, where Charlotte volunteers, the Senior Companion
Program is sponsored in cooperation with the Maine Seacoast Mission's
outreach center, Weald Bethel, in Cherryfield. In 1973, Washington
County, one of the poorest, most rural areas in New England, was chosen
as one of the first national Senior Companion Program pilot sites;
today, it hosts almost half of the state's Companions and clients.
"Because of the geographic and demographic nature of Washington County,
the Senior Companion Program is one of the most important things that
happens for elderly in this area," says Rev. Marty Shaw, pastor and
program director of Weald Bethel. "Without the Senior Companion Program,
the county would be missing ways to keep people from getting lost."
Charlotte's husband, James, a retired minister, was a Senior Companion
for five years. When his health was failing, Charlotte took his place,
making Senior Companion visits in the mornings, and spending the
afternoons with James in the nursing home. When James passed away nearly
three years ago, it was the Senior Companion Program that helped
Charlotte stay active.
"Doing for others helps," she says.
In her housing complex, Charlotte is a Senior Companion to three women.
Three days a week following lunch in the community room, she spends the
afternoon visiting with them in their apartments. Tuesdays and
Thursdays, Charlotte is out and about in Jonesport, visiting two elders
in their homes, and stopping at the nursing home to see a client who
recently moved to assisted living quarters.
Many days, Charlotte leaves home at 9 a.m. and doesn't return until late
Since she started, Charlotte has been a Senior Companion to more than 35
people, logging nearly 7,300 volunteer hours. This year, she is one of
four Senior Companions in Washington County nominated for the Governor's
"Charlotte has such compassion for people. All of her clients say that
her visits are the highlight of their day," says Extension Educator Deb
Eckart, who oversees Washington County's program. "She makes sure people
have as much independence as possible. She knows the importance of
keeping seniors in their own homes as long as possible, giving them
opportunities to make their own decisions and to have good quality of
Charlotte talks of her clients as friends with whom she's been on a
lifelong journey. Some she has known since moving to Jonesport three
years ago; others she's just met. She appreciates their strengths and
understands their needs.
"She keeps track of me. I call her or she calls me two or three times a
day," says Lena, who lives alone with her cat, Daisy Mae. "Just visiting
is our favorite thing to do. Between Charlotte and church, I'm busy,
which means I don't have time to sit and think about myself."
While Charlotte has known Lena since 2001, she has known Iona for many
years. Iona came to live in the subsidized housing complex in November,
leaving her home of 52 years in Beals where she was living alone after
her husband died.
"I was alone, never had company," Iona says. "It's so much better to
have friends around. Charlotte brings her paper over for me to read.
Most of the time we talk about our families, church and the conditions
of the world. The fellowship is the best part."
When Charlotte was asked to start visiting an elderly man living alone,
she broke the ice by "just talking about family. I asked about his and
told him about mine." At the nursing home where she visits a woman
unable to speak, Charlotte reads to her. And sings her hymns.
"A lot of times what I do with the people I visit is just listen. It's
something I've learned that's important to people," Charlotte says.
Senior Companions receive monthly training from Extension on issues
related to aging — nutrition and food safety, physical activity,
Alzheimer's, grief and loss, even the best pets for the homebound. In
addition, they are advised on community services that could help their
clients, such as federal fuel assistance and Maine's FarmShare Program,
which seasonally provides fresh produce.
"The educational training keeps Senior Companions and their clients
connected with the world. They gain knowledge and information pertinent
to their individual needs," says Eckart. "It makes them feel vital, that
life is not passing them by."
The Senior Companions also receive stipends of $2.65 an hour — roughly
as much as $100 every two weeks. For some of the volunteers, the stipend
means the difference between paying and not paying all their bills at
the end of the month, but that's not why they do what they do, says
Carla Ganiel, the statewide director of Cooperative Extension's Senior
Companion Program for the past two years.
"Senior Companions volunteer because they get so much out of it. In
Maine's rural areas, oftentimes people drive miles to get to clients,
often transporting them to the doctor or grocery store and not even
breaking even (on transportation costs).
"Senior Companions tell us they do it because it makes them feel good to
help people and to contribute to society. Seniors often feel
disenfranchised, but that changes when they see they can have a positive
impact on someone else. These are decent, good people who care about
helping others and about making a contribution."
Because the program is federally funded, University of Maine Cooperative
Extension is mandated to quantify its success — a requirement that isn't
easy when the best evidence is anecdotal. UMaine Associate Professor of
Social Work Sandy Butler has studied the Senior Companion Program in an
effort to help administrators of this and other elder-helping-elder
programs document their results. As a result of her research, she
recommends two standardized measures assessing social networks and
depression, coupled with a series of open-ended questions that allow
Senior Companions and clients to express the meaning of the program in
Butler cites many of the elders she interviewed, among them an
83-year-old woman in failing health who said contact with her Senior
Companion "has meant everything to me." A 77-year-old man said the best
part about being a Senior Companion is "the way they (the elders) look
at you when you come in."
For the 12 years she's been directing Washington County's Senior
Companion Program, Eckart has heard the same sentiments. "I've had
Senior Companions tell me that this gives them a reason to live. Clients
have said, ‘I can't die today because I'm expecting Charlotte.' They may
have had a bad week, but they know their Senior Companion is coming on
Thursday and they're going to play Scrabble and read the newspaper, so
they can't let themselves go into the depths of depression."
Senior Companions like Charlotte recognize that the giving and rewards
flow both ways.
"I'll stay as long as I can," Charlotte says. "I'm 79. I've still got 20
more years to give."
by Margaret Nagle
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.