12/28/10 — Senior Companion program encourages friendship

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Senior Companion program encourages friendship

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on December 28, 2010 1:46 PM

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Senior Companion Jessie Whittaker, left, shares a laugh with Goldsboro resident Lula Carlson. Senior Companions is a federally funded program operated by WAGES, matching up volunteers to support the elderly. Ms. Carlson said she enjoys the friendship she has cultivated with Ms. Whittaker in the five years they have known each other.

For senior citizens, just a short visit from someone who cares can make the day a lot brighter.

And for more than 35 years, the Senior Companion program has been doing just that, making life a little easier for seniors in Wayne County.

Wayne County was one of the first in the nation to start a Senior Companion program, said Troy Ferguson, program administrator for Wayne Action Group for Economic Solvency, or WAGES.

"It was one of the original 17 in the country and the only one in North Carolina," she said of the program introduced in 1974.

Since then, hundreds of people have benefited from the federally funded program. At present, 73 people are serving as senior companions and the program has a waiting list almost as long of people wanting someone to be their companion.

"We have had a large number at O'Berry, nursing homes, Kitty Askins, churches, a lot of people recognize the role they have played in those institutions," Mrs. Ferguson said.

In the past two years, state officials have adjusted the focus of the program in an attempt to allow more seniors to stay at home and keep their independence. Having a companion who stops by, even for just a short time, can be crucial to giving a senior citizen that independence.

To be a senior companion, volunteers must be at least 55 years old and have a low to moderate income level, Mrs. Ferguson said.

"There are no requirements for who they work with, an older adult in need of some type of services so that they can remain at home," she pointed out.

The role of a senior companion is to develop a relationship with the person they are helping, to become a friend they can trust.

"They can go in, they can fix a light breakfast or a light lunch, run errands, take them to the grocery store. A big thing we're seeing now is they provide respite for that primary caregiver," Mrs. Ferguson said. "We're trying to encourage our volunteers to get their clients out and socialize more. We have got some that take their clients to the Senior Center here in Goldsboro or Mount Olive. That's been a big area we're looking at."

Volunteers commit to 20 hours a week, usually five days a week and sometimes at more than one location. More than 100 families are currently being served by the program.

"Our volunteers will tell you that they get more out of it than the clients," Mrs. Ferguson said. "A lot of them take on more than they're required to do. We have many caregivers who feel like they could not keep their loved one at home if they didn't have that person coming in.

"I really think it's just coming in, fixing breakfast, reminding them to take their medicine -- they don't dispense medication but they can remind them -- that consistency is important."

Participants receive a small stipend to help defray the cost of being a volunteer and partially reimburse them for travel, Mrs. Ferguson said. Transportation is also provided for those inside the city of Goldsboro to get to an assignment.

Longevity in the program is surprisingly high, Mrs. Ferguson said.

"We have had people that have served more than 10 years. I have one volunteer right now that's 90 years old. He'll say that staying active is why he's still a volunteer," she said. "We did have some that retired (but) I really have very little turnover. They get into the program and they enjoy it."

Because the program is federally funded, there is a cap on the number of volunteers that can be accepted. For those interested, though, applications are taken on a regular basis.

"We will set up an orientation class, do a background check and have a one-week orientation, training for one week, ongoing training once a month," Mrs. Ferguson said. "They have to have physicals so we know they're physically able to participate."

The year-round obligation also features a monthly fellowship time for participants in the program.

Currently, in addition to placements in individual homes, the program has partnerships with six organizations -- WAGES, the county Department of Social Services, St. Paul United Methodist Church, First Presbyterian Church, O'Berry Center and the latest addition, Alzheimer's North Carolina.

"That has probably been one of my more challenging areas this year," Mrs. Ferguson said of the Alzheimer's group.

"The caregivers of those diagnosed with Alzheimer's and related dementia are under a lot of stress, they're not able to leave the home. We thought they would just be really excited about having a companion, some respite. Once they take on that companion, it makes a difference in their lives.

Alzheimer's North Carolina provided training for Senior Companions who work in that capacity, which is invaluable, Mrs. Ferguson said.

"With the Alzheimer's clients we kind of have to throw (everything) out the window because you never know how they're going to react coming in," she said. "But I think that's definitely an area you want to focus on and grow."

For more information about the program, call 734-1178, ext. 202.