Bill Withers’s famous song, "Lean on Me," reflects the heart and soul of People Inc.’s Senior Companion Program, which assists seniors who are having difficulty with daily living tasks. Albert Brice, sixty-five, a former hardworking employee of the University at Buffalo, understands the program’s value: it’s personal. "I’m blind, not legally blind-blind," says Brice who, after leading an active daily life, now relies on People Inc. companion Dawson Henderson forty hours per week to help him maintain his independence. It’s pretty easy for Brice to accept help; he worked with Henderson at the university and they maintain a friendship. Henderson, seventy-two, started volunteering for the Senior Companion Program when he retired ten years ago.
"I was bored and just sitting around watching television. I didn’t want to get fat; I wanted to remain active. I am happy to help someone," says Henderson.
"We talk about everything, go to the movies and, if the weather is right, we go to the park. He is my friend and once a month we join another friend for lunch. I am happy to help someone at my age!"
As I talk to both of these jovial men about their regular routine, they continue to laugh and tell jokes. Brice says Henderson is a pretty good cook of a breakfast favorite; bacon, grits, and eggs, "But," he says laughing to himself, "I won’t brag about him!" They are friends indeed.
Senior Companion Program volunteers receive a background check, twenty hours of pre-service orientation, and four hours of in-service training monthly before being assigned a senior. Volunteers are age fifty-five or older from Erie County who meet income eligibility and background requirements. They serve frail older adults, adults with disabilities, and those with terminal illnesses. Senior companions are supervised by the professional staff of People Inc. and other collaborating agencies. Most senior companions have had previous experience in caring for the elderly.
Senior companion volunteers earn a tax-free hourly stipend plus travel and meal reimbursement. "It is not a job," says program coordinator Lovena Moore, "it is a labor of love." Moore says, among other activities, senior companions may assist with tasks like grocery shopping and errands; providing friendship and companionship; alerting doctors and family members to potential problems; and providing respite for caregivers.
For Brice and Henderson, each day is filled with activities. Brice proudly points out during our interview that exercise is a part of his daily routine. "I work out and have a total gym. He says his quality of life is enhanced by the program and he encourages others to volunteer or ask for help. "I think more people need to get out and do things!"
As the baby boomer generation retires, medical experts say more and more men and women have health needs and challenges. To avoid depression and other illnesses, companions, family, and friends become even more important. According to AARP, loneliness and isolation is a predictor of poor health.
Leo Buscaglia author of Living, Loving, Learning, says it well, "Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around."
Just today, I mentioned the People Inc. Senior Companion Program to an older woman seated alone at a local supermarket restaurant as she ate dinner. She asked me to tell her more about the program. Totally focused on my every word, she reached out to me and touched my hand and said, "I need a companion, just someone to talk to once and a while."
Anyone interested in receiving senior companion services or in volunteering at least twenty hours a week is encouraged to call the office at 768-2381 or visit the People Inc. Senior Companion Program online at people-inc.org.
Sandy White is a radio talk show host of Help Somebody, airing each Monday at 12:30 p.m. on WUFO-1080 AM and on wufoam.com.