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UMaine Today Magazine


In Somerset County, Delmar Cook, left, and Senior Companion Edward Morrissey share their love of music. Photo by Edwin Remsberg, USDA
In Somerset County, Delmar Cook, left, and Senior Companion Edward Morrissey share their love of music.

Photo by Edwin Remsberg, USDA

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Senior Companions

(Editor's note: Full-length version of story.)

In 2006, a handful of low-income senior citizens in Maine volunteered their time to help 53 of their peers ages 90 and older continue to live independently, in their homes, rather than in long-term care facilities.

The estimated cost saving to the state by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Senior Companion Program that year was more than $4.2 million.

"This is a subset of the Senior Companion Program participants who are at high risk and would likely have to have long-term assistance if not for this program," says Jim McConnon, an Extension business and economics specialist and professor in the UMaine School of Economics. "Associated costs would likely be borne by the individuals (or their families), or the state, or some combination of the two."

These cost savings are just part of the overall benefits of the Senior Companion Program, McConnon says. "Looked at comprehensively, there are additional cost savings associated with other program participants less at risk, but needing some sort of care. This study helps quantify the economic impact of one of Cooperative Extension's many programs."

McConnon and three coauthors Todd Gabe , an associate professor in the UMaine School of Economics, and Debra Eckart and Ann Swain with Extension's Senior Companion Program recently released an economic impact study that shows that, for 26 years, the Senior Companion Program has offered a cost-effective solution to help Maine's older adults remain in their homes instead of moving into costly assisted-living facilities.

That's particularly pertinent in Maine, where an estimated 14 percent of residents are now age 65 and older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2025, more than 20 percent of the state's population will be senior citizens.

The program links limited-income volunteers ages 60 and older with peers in their community who are homebound or isolated. The Senior Companions provide friendship and nonmedical support from running errands and helping with home management to providing advocacy.

Extension staff provide monthly professional development training for the volunteers, including information on nutrition and wellness, eldercare, consumer fraud and emergency preparedness. Through the program, Senior Companions also receive small stipends, helping them, in turn, remain active and maintain their quality of life.

"The program makes a huge difference because it helps people maintain their independence, staying in their own homes and continuing their lives in their own communities, where their connections are," says Eckart, an Extension educator in Washington County. "It really works well in small, rural communities where people want to take care of their own. The home visitations are peer to peer, like having a friend coming to help out."

In the past quarter-century, an estimated 426 Senior Companions have helped meet the needs of more than 12, 550 elders in Maine communities. In 2006, the year on which the UMaine researchers focused their findings, 105 Senior Companions served 501 clients statewide, volunteering a total of 82,260 hours.

The program's statewide operating budget that year was approximately $560,000 in federal and state funding, and contributions from local nonprofit organizations.

According to the study, approximately 10 percent of the clients that year would likely have lived in long-term care facilities if they were not receiving assistance through the Senior Companion Program. The estimated nursing home cost savings for the 53 clients participating in the program that year were $4.2 million.

"The numbers indicate that by investing in a program like this, we can save a lot of money and provide a better quality of life for people," Eckart says.

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