Aided by a federal grant from the Federal Corporation for National and Community Service, the Georgia Southern University Area Senior Companion program has provided years of support for senior adults in the area, and given many of the program’s companions much joy and purpose. The program is sponsored by the Center for Social Gerontology at the university.
According to Deb Blackburn, program director, GSU applied for the grant in 1988 as a service to the community. The 1960 White House Conference on Aging had highlighted a need for older adults to stay active, and pointed out that this could be done through community service. Programs were initiated in the years following that would allow for this, and regulations were put in place to provide for volunteer service hour requirements and in-service training.
Many of the current volunteers, called Senior Companions, have been with the program since its inception, and are still providing care. Volunteers have contributed nearly 40,000 hours of service in just one year, caring one on one for frail adults — providing more than 1 million hours of service throughout the length of the program.
The original mission of the program was to assist senior adults who need additional support to remain in their homes and live independently. The program serves frail seniors, adults with disabilities, and those with terminal illness. It also provides a welcome relief for caregivers as needed.
In addition to Bulloch County, the program serves Bryan, Candler, Emanuel, Effingham, Evans, Jenkins Screven and Tattnall counties. Volunteers are matched with clients according to their needs, abilities and distance, and they serve 15 to 40 hours per week. They also earn tax-free hourly, meal and mileage stipends.
Volunteers assist their clients by providing supervision for those who wander or who are bed-bound, help with simple chores to maintain living conditions, limited transportation, and help with meals.
Blackburn says there are currently 23 volunteers in the field working the maximum number of hours and safe limited services, due to restrictions caused by the COVID virus. She adds that they recently started processing 11 more volunteers, with a few more pending.
Many of the volunteers have been with the program for many years. Beatrice Huff has been with the program longer than anyone — more than 27 years.
“I enjoy every minute of it,” she said. “Know why? Because I love people. I love to be around people.” She adds that she just loves talking to people as well.
James Brunson has also been with the program a number of years, and that because of it, he can’t wait to get up each day and “go to work.”
“Staying at home ain’t my bag, and I thank the Lord for carrying me through and allowing me to do this,” he said.
“Volunteering has been shown to improve health and increase longevity,” Blackburn said. “They developed the senior companion program to encourage and assist low-income people to volunteer and receive the same health benefits of those with mid- to upper-income. There is a stipend available for volunteers, so it does not cost them anything to volunteer. “
Blackburn says volunteers receive $3 per hour to volunteer, 40 cents a mile to drive and $1.50 per meal. Currently they also receive a phone stipend because they have been making calls in lieu of going into the homes of the clients because of COVID.
“Many times, the additional money from the stipend helps the volunteers buy their medication or pay utilities,” she adds.
Blackburn says that reducing isolation for seniors is how they measure the success of the program, and COVID has been absolutely devastating for many of the volunteers.
“They have switched to making calls and safe visiting in the yard, but it does not compare to the visiting and services they did prior to COVID,” she said. “We recently checked the waiting list and a large percentage of the clients waiting for services have passed away or we are unable to reach them for various reasons. COVID has impacted our counties in different ways. At this time, I have volunteers crossing into other counties to provide coverage.”
Blackburn says there are about one to two volunteers per county currently, unless the county serves provides additional funding. Bulloch County generally has 10 or more volunteers.
There are several benefits for the participating communities.
“First is the benefit to the volunteer. Low-income people over 55 have an opportunity to volunteer and receive a health benefit where they hadn’t before. Second, the clients who receive the in-home service of the senior companion volunteer. Third, the family and friends of the client who may need respite or the relief in knowing someone is there to care for their loved one. The local economy for the infusion of money. The state and federal government for the cost savings of having a senior companion rather than the cost of staying in a nursing home. I could go on all day,” Blackburn said.
Students at GSU benefit from the program by volunteering in the office, participating in service-learning projects and working as interns, graduate assistants and as hourly-paid students.
“While they work with me, I describe every facet of the program so they can take that knowledge forward with them. They may learn something from us that will be helpful when they have professional careers. The aging population is a third of our population, so it is good to learn how to assist them,” Blackburn says.
The program also benefits The Center for Gerontology at GSU in a mutually beneficial way, Blackburn says.
“The senior companion program is a wonderful opportunity for the faculty to put their expertise into practice. Dr. Adrienne Cohen, the center director, specializes in Gerontology, Social Work and Sociology. Dr. Jennifer Zorotovitch, a professor of Human Ecology, is now managing the Call2Care program. Nursing, Psychology and others have provided programs for our volunteer training,” she said.
Becoming a companion is open to anyone who is 55 years of age or older, low-income and with no criminal record. The provided stipend can help with utility bills, medication and transportation for the volunteers, who attend orientation and regular monthly training.
The program is a nonprofit, and Blackburn says that they accept donations and in-kind assistance of any kind. For more information on how to become a volunteer, how your loved one could benefit from the program or to donate, call 912-478-0712.