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May / June 2005 Cover

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Organized Neighborliness


Organized Neighborliness
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 this afternoon.

"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 anniversary.

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 demographics.

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 afternoon.

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 Service Award.

"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 life."

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 their lives.

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
May-June, 2005

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