Senior companions

Volunteers with the Senior Companion program, administered locally by Pima Council on Aging, provide companionship and assistance to fellow seniors who are trying to live independently. Among the volunteers are: Akiba Timoya (back, left), Katrina Blake, Sis Hall, Marilyn Zabowsky (front, left), Barb Nielsen, Lynn Ribiat, Fritzi Redgrave.

At 101-years-old Mary Kirby enjoys living in her Tucson home and spending time with friends thanks in part to a federal program.

A couple of times a week, she gets to visit with volunteer Lynn Ribiat and chat while enjoying a view of the Catalina Mountains. There are at least five seniors in Green Valley who would also love to take part in the program, but can't.

The problem? 

A lack of volunteers.

Kirby is a client of the Senior Companion program, a federally-funded program which is overseen by Suzette Gonzalez of the Pima Council on Aging.

The program was created in the hopes of keeping seniors independent as long as possible, but the PCOA has yet to have any success finding volunteers in Green Valley despite having a waiting list of potential clients, Gonzalez said. 

Right now, Gonzalez said the PCOA has 15 companions who are serving 45 clients in Pima County, but they could handle as many as 37 volunteers.

The program's administrators want to find more volunteers like Tucsonan, Lynn Ribiat, 75, who visits with Kirby twice a week and has six other clients.

"I will come over and cook a little, nothing fancy, TV dinners, do some dishes, make some coffee or tea, to make their life a little brighter," she said. "Because if you have to wait for your kids to come around, honey, doomsday comes. That's just the way it is."

Ribiat said she sees the program as a way to help out other seniors who might need assistance with small tasks or who want some company.

Kirby moved to Tucson with her husband from Long Island so they could be closer to their daughter. Kirby's husband has since died, but she said she is thankful for the friends she still has in Tucson.

One of those friends is Ribiat.

"We'll fix something delicious to eat, and we sit down and enjoy the scenery over on Mount Lemmon," she said. "I think it's a very worthwhile program. And I think a lot of the older people benefit from it."

Finding volunteers

Gonzalez said the PCOA needs companions who are at least 55 years old in the Green Valley area, but they haven't been able to find local volunteers who meet the program's qualifications.

While the companions are volunteers, they do receive some compensation, and with it comes specific requirements.

One requirement is a person's income.

Volunteers can't have an income above 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Currently, that means a volunteer's income can't exceed $25,520 for a single-person household after deducting medical expenses, she said.

Gonzalez said the program currently pays the volunteers $2.65 per hour, and participants can earn from $200 to $600 per month, tax-free. The program also gives eight hours of holiday pay, paid time off and supplemental auto insurance, she said.

"The program was created with somebody in mind who is relying on disability or social security alone, and they don't have any other sources of income," Gonzalez said.

The volunteers have to commit to a minimum of 15 hours per week, pass background checks, go through training and take a physical exam as well.

"It's a little bit harder to get that kind of commitment from folks down in Green Valley who are often already involved in other volunteer services," she said.

Gonzalez said people are staying in the workforce longer, sometimes into their 70's, and their continuing income often makes them ineligible to apply.

There are no income requirements to be a client.

Being a volunteer

Becoming a senior companion isn't a quick and easy process. In addition to the requirements, there's also plenty of paperwork and training – lots of training.

Gonzalez said volunteers receive more than 80 hours of training every year.

"Most of the training is centered around things like cultural sensitivity – all of our volunteers participate in the Project Visibility training for LGBTQ sensitivity," Gonzalez said. "We've done training on hoarding, insurance and end of life directives."

Neither senior companions nor the PCOA provides any medical service, but they do train volunteers to identify issues they might see while with their clients.

She said the volunteers learn to identify medication-related red flags, such as people not taking their meds or not taking them appropriately.

Lynn Ribiat

Lynn Ribiat is a volunteer for a program that helps seniors to remain independent. Ribiat has seven clients she visits regularly to provide companionship as well as assistance with daily home management. 

Ribiat recently finished a seminar, as part of her training, with Drexel Heights Fire District.

"It was nice, and you learn different things," Ribiat said. "The most important thing you can teach people when they get older is that you're not alone, you can always call (someone) and how not to fall."

While the training provides volunteers with the skills necessary to identify red flags and perform regular welfare checks, their regular presence brings another significant impact on the clients' lives.

Providing companionship

The volunteers make independent living more accessible to those who might need a little help but aren't yet to the point where they require assisted living.

"It's to help them remain independent," Gonzalez said. "They do help a little bit with some home management."

Gonzalez said some of the tasks companions help with might be things people take for granted, such as tossing out expired food, sorting mail or keeping track of appointments.

The companions provide moral support in these situations, especially those in the early stages of dementia.

"That's where the senior companions can really help those folks stay independent until they actually reach the level where they qualify for assisted living," she said.

Ribiat said the activities she does with clients could vary and range from going to a restaurant, doctor appointments or a walk outside to staying in their home and talking or playing games.

"The most important thing is physical contact with another person, so they don't feel isolated, so they don't feel alone," she said. "And we sort of fill in that gap for them."

Jorge Encinas | 520-547-9732

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