“Do not regret growing older. It is a privilege denied to many.” – Unknown
One hundred years ago, in 1914, life expectancy in the United States was approximately 54 years of age. Today, life expectancy is nearly 85 years. With people living longer and the Baby Boomers rapidly approaching the 65-year benchmark, the national population of the elderly is expected to balloon to nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population by 2030. Genesee County demographics reflect this upward trend, as nearly 15 percent of people in Genesee County last year were 65 years or older. The Senior Companion Program of Genesee and Lapeer is designed to serve this group by providing a volunteering opportunity that connects seniors to the greater community.
Senior Companions are volunteers 55 years and older who spend time with adults who, for a variety of reasons, need companionship and assistance in maintaining their independence. The Senior Companion Program is sponsored by the Family Service Agency of Mid-Michigan, and is run by Robyn Johnston. The program’s compassionate Volunteer Supervisors are Ann and her daughter Amanda Childs. These women come to work every day with three goals: meet needs, encourage each other, and stretch pennies. The needs they see are sometimes desperate: “Some of the situations just make you want to take these sweet old folks home with you – and I’ve done it!” Ann exclaimed.
The genius of the program is that it serves two historically under-served populations. On the whole, support and services for the aging and special-needs populations are woefully inadequate, resulting in a large-scale neglect of people who deserve our respect and veneration. The Senior Companion Program provides a tax-exempt, hourly stipend to local senior volunteers, who give meaningful service to the community by visiting, supporting and befriending special-needs adults and other seniors. “For all of our volunteers, this stipend is very important. It means that they don’t have to decide between buying medicine or groceries,” said Robyn. However, the results are much more meaningful than a check to help make ends meet.
Here’s how it works: The Senior Companion Program has a number of partner agencies that refer clients who they feel would benefit from having a volunteer visit them. These partner agencies include Genesee Health Systems, Catholic Charities, Valley Area Agency on Aging, and others. While emphasis is placed on visiting clients in their homes, Ann and Robyn send volunteers wherever they are most comfortable, such as to nursing homes and assisted living institutions, senior centers, and day programs, in addition to group homes and clubs for the mentally disabled. Many of the aforementioned institutions are happy to have the volunteers visit. “We work with a variety of local nonprofits, and we receive referrals for clients with all sorts of different needs,” said Robyn. The task at hand for Ann is to play matchmaker, and she is very thorough. She personally visits each new referred client first to understand their personality and needs in order to match them with the right volunteer. “You really need a good match,” said Robyn, “you want a pair who will be mutually agreeable.” Once Ann has a volunteer in mind, she arranges a formal introduction. “At that first meeting, once the two find something in common, you can see the spark, and it blossoms into close friendship,” she said. “It’s so rewarding to witness that happen.”
The resulting relationship is good for both parties, for friendship is as vital to the aged as it to the young, and perhaps even more so. One such friendship exists between Oris Benton, a sweet lady of 84, and a volunteer named Olive Smith, who has visited Oris at her home every week for the past five years. The ladies chat and watch television, do puzzles and run errands. “Oris used to have a garden out back, and we would always go dig around out there,” Olive remembered with a laugh, “but it got to be too much of a hassle at our age.” Olive is a certified driver, and she takes Oris to the doctor, to the grocery store, or to the bank. “We really make a day of it when we go out,” she said. These two are a great example of the friendship that is built between senior companions and their clients: Olive is friendly and talkative, while Oris describes herself as “not much of a talker.” Oris called Olive a blessing, saying, “It’s been a great pleasure having Olive with me; she’s a sweet lady.”
Friendship is not the only reward offered by the Senior Companion Program, however. The volunteers also reap a sense of purpose and a feeling of fulfillment. “Our senior citizens are a generation of people with a heroic work ethic. Volunteering gives them a sense of purpose and fulfillment, and they are very serious about their obligations to their clients,” said Ann, who added with a laugh, “In fact, when the roads are too bad, we have to call and convince them to stay home because they are so adamant about meeting their obligation!” A few volunteers have even been able to overcome significant tragedies thanks to the sense of purpose they receive from volunteering.
Self-esteem is another benefit. Robyn says that when men and women first start in the program, many do not have very high self-esteem; perhaps they retired long ago and feel useless and depleted, as if they have nothing left to offer. It is the change in these people that really touches the heart. “There is a huge change in the confidence of many of our volunteers within the first six months,” Robyn said, “and to see that is so wonderful.” Ann and Robyn both say that the volunteers make up a close family. “We look out for each other,” said Robyn. “I know if push came to shove, they’d do anything to help me.” Ann can recall a few times she has relied on them: “Those good Christian ladies have prayed me through some very tough times,” she said.
While the program’s success can be credited to the lengths that Ann and Robyn go to ensure a good match, another reason that the program thrives is the volunteers’ level of preparedness. Before any volunteer “enters the field,” they receive 40 hours of intense training, followed by four additional hours of in-service training every month. Robyn and Ann are always standing by to assist however they can, and the volunteers make good use of them. “They are not shy about their needs or those of their clients!” laughed Ann, adding, “They are our eyes and our ears. They keep us informed about what’s going on.” In its 30-year history in Genesee and Lapeer Counties, the program can boast of a number of volunteers who have been with them for decades. The average age of a Flint senior companion is 75 years, and ages range from 60 to 91 years of age. Ms. Rupert Bass has been with the program for 26 years, the longest of any Senior Companion volunteer. “She is a magnificent lady,” said Ann. “Everyone she works with loves her. Why, some of her clients at the day program will cooperate with her better than they will for the staff; probably because Rupert’s been there longer!”
The Senior Companion Program of Genesee and Lapeer is undoubtedly one of Flint’s best kept secrets, but even so, Robyn and Ann still have no trouble filling their quotas. “Our budget limits us to 40 volunteers. What with illnesses and breaks for the volunteers, we stretch it to about 45,” Robyn reported. “We have such amazing people. They truly are a gift.” Robyn and Ann both say that they are grateful for the support they’ve received over the years, from organizations such as the Michigan Office of Services to the Aging, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and M-DOT. Robyn adds that local partnerships have also been crucial to the program’s success. “The MTA in particular is phenomenal,” said Robyn, “Your Ride provides our seniors with curb-to-curb service across the county, and without them, we would not be able to do what we do.” All in all, the ladies agree that as The Senior Companion Program heads into its 30th year serving Genesee and Lapeer Counties, gratitude is their primary emotion. “I couldn’t be more blessed than to work with Ann, Amanda and all of our wonderful volunteers,” said Robyn, “We are always grateful.”
PHOTOS BY MICHAEL GLEASON AND COURTESY OF THE SENIOR COMPANION PROGRAM