Helping Others Pays Dividends
The extra money comes in handy these days, Jan Read admits. Purse strings have been tight since the death of her spouse nine years go. But money isn’t the most important payback she gets from assisting seniors who need a hand maintaining an independent life.
“It has given me a sense of purpose,” says Read, 75. “It’s feel-good work. There’s a huge reward.”
The work that kindles this enthusiasm comes as a Senior Companion, providing social connection, support, and transport for Lane County seniors less healthy and mobile than she.
“It’s remarkable, coming at the end of my life, to discover a gift I didn’t know I had,” she says. “It relies on all the skills we develop as we go through life—being mothers, career people, community members. The conglomerate of who I am, all the aspects of my life, become valuable in this work.”
Jan Read wasn’t seeking emotional fulfillment when she signed up three years ago with the Lane County Senior Companion Program. It was the promise of a small stipend for low-income volunteers that caught her attention.
“I needed to increase my income a little bit to have room for the occasional extra,” she says. Maybe a trip to Washington to visit friends left behind in the move to Eugene to be near grown children after her husband’s death.
The national Senior Companion Program was established in 1970s anti-poverty legislation that targeted low-income seniors both as recipients and providers of support. It allocated an hourly stipend for low-income volunteers over 55 who dedicate at least 15 hours a week to helping frail seniors or disabled citizens stay in their homes.
"It has given me a sense of purpose."
Jan Read never imagined that she would find her self a low-income widow in her 70s, looking to supplement modest retirement resources. She’d worked as a newspaper journalist in Florida, a business office manager in Seattle, free-lance writer, and assorted part-time positions including a season selling Navajo jewelry on the rim of the Grand Canyon.
Her husband worked at newspapers too, but was in poor health when he left at 65. Retirement brought indulgences that sapped the couple’s savings. They said “yes” to their dreams and desires.
“His health was fragile. I knew he wasn’t going to be around for long, and I said we should go for it while he was able.” Read says. “We played the money away. So there I was. I found myself a poor widow.”
Her experience brought to mind a recent report I read that identified older women as a growing segment of the American labor force. In 1992, one in 12 women worked past age 65, according to US Labor Department statistics. This year, the figure has jumped to one in seven. By 2024, the department projects one woman in five will be employed past 65.
While financial rewards are small from Read’s companionship work, she counts new friends and self-esteem among the assets she gains as Senior Companion to six homebound men, five of them younger than she. Read visits each of the men two or three times a week, spending about three hours per visit. Often, she drives them to appointments, shopping outings, or a ride in the countryside.
Her commitment exceeds the minimum 15 hours required of volunteers in the program, but it has prodded her out of an emotional funk that followed her husband’s death and a change of lifestyle.
“It’s challenging, but it’s better than sitting at home and watching MSNBC all day” she says.
Win-Win for both Givers and Receivers
Read is one of 60 local seniors now helping about 300 Lane County residents maintain independent lives. Most clients come through referrals from Senior and Disabled Services or the Veterans Administration. They are paired with companions by the Senior Companion Program that operates through Lane Community College’s Successful Aging Institute.
The Lane County program was introduced and directed in 1977 by now Congressman Peter DeFazio. It has survived, says current director Barbara Susman, because it has made a difference in many lives.
“It’s not easy work,” Susman says. “You are putting your heart out there with folks. What I love is we have companions dealing with all sorts of stuff themselves and they make a conscious decision everyday to go out and see clients. It helps them both.”
For Ed Poore, 81, the challenges of his work as a Senior Companion add to the fulfillment he has found in five years with the program. Guidelines allow either the companion or the client to reject a pairing, but Poore welcomes the goal of creating connection, even when isolation or pain have left a recipient prickly.
“A client that is a little hard to get along with, you have to work through the problems they have and become friends with them,” the Springfield senior explains. “You have to listen to them more than anything else. I was brought up in a Christian way and I don’t give up on people very easily.”
No wonder Poore is often called upon to let new volunteers accompany him for on-the-job training. The skills he uses to build relationships, he says, are products of working directly with customers for 22 years in the grocery business and 20 years more in appliance sales and kitchen remodeling.
“It’s a matter of trust and communication,” he says.
The opportunity to put a little money in the house account while helping other people made the companion program appealing to Poore when knee replacement surgery at age 76 convinced him to give up his work as a contractor. Poore and wife, Carol, rely on Social Security now, so the tax-free stipend of $2.65 per hour he gets as a Senior Companion helps pay a bill or two.
“The money part is small, but it matters,” he says. “The first thing is, you have to care about being with people. Care about being in service.”
Poore limits his work to three days a week, putting in about 18 hours of client time. On workdays, he may log 45-75 miles driving his clients to appointments, on errands, or even to fishing holes.
“The clients I have, they have been good to me too,” he reflects. “It’s a program I get a lot of good out of. Being able to help somebody is the biggest thing. They depend on me and I’d hate to disappoint one of them.”
Carolyn Kortge of Eugene is a former Register-Guard editor and writer,
and author of The Spirited Walker. Contact her at email@example.com.