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Companions for life

Gordon “Rusty” Wells, left, prepares for a walk with son-in-law Dennis Robertson at their Post Falls home. They take part in the Senior Companion Program. (Kathy Plonka)
Gordon “Rusty” Wells, left, prepares for a walk with son-in-law Dennis Robertson at their Post Falls home. They take part in the Senior Companion Program. (Kathy Plonka)

Health benefits of North Idaho program go two ways

As a general rule, Dennis Robertson is in.

Bowling? Fishing? Karoake? Yes, yes, yes. A homebound elderly resident in need of a companion, or a caregiver who needs a few hours of relief? Yes to them, too.

“You just have to say yes to life, and that goes for just about everything,” Robertson said.

At 65 years old and retired, it’s not necessarily easy to say yes every time, but – for his own sake – it’s essential, said Robertson, of Post Falls. Not engaging is not an option.

His main volunteer gig – 20 hours a week or more – in the Senior Companion Program through the Panhandle Health District in North Idaho is his way of being self-employed, for free.

“It used to be you retire at 60, you turn 61, you die,” he said. “That’s not true anymore. I got 30 years.”

Engagement, for both the volunteers and the people they’re serving, is at the program’s heart. And the North Idaho program, in need of volunteers, offers health benefits that work two ways, coordinator Miranda Hoefert said.

Mostly federally funded as a Senior Corps program, the effort aims to provide companionship to homebound residents in Idaho’s five northern counties and respite for their full-time caregivers, often husbands and wives. Volunteers also provide some transportation, important services for elderly or medically fragile people who want to remain in their own homes rather than moving to care facilities. While most clients are in their 70s, 80s and 90s, the free program is open those 21 or older, Hoefert said.

Volunteers like Robertson benefit, too, she said. Study after study has highlighted the positive health effects of volunteerism for people of all ages.

But research has suggested that volunteering is particularly beneficial to the health of older adults, according to a report released a few years ago by the Corporation for National and Community Service. The federal agency, which oversees the Senior Companions and other community service programs across the U.S., reviewed more than 30 “rigorous and longitudinal studies” and found:

• Volunteers 70 and older lived longer.

• Volunteers 65 and older had lower rates of depression.

• People who volunteered after suffering heart attacks reported less despair and depression.

• Volunteering is particularly beneficial to people who serve at least 100 hours a year.

The Senior Companion Program provides a way for seniors to be active and engaged in their communities, “but then they’re also helping seniors that are isolated … to do the same,” Hoefert said.

Hoefert spends one-on-one time with potential volunteers during initial interviews and clients during home visits, learning about their interests and personalities before matching them up. She gets client referrals from nurses in the health district’s Home Health program and others.

“When I do a home visit, I’m looking for folks that would benefit from having more socialization, a friend, or maybe – which happens a lot in northern Idaho – they just live out in the boonies,” she said. “They don’t have access to health care or groceries or anybody. They’ll go for weeks without even talking to anybody.”

Along with companionship – they might play cards, watch TV or just talk – volunteers also provide transportation to medical appointments or a grocery store, “maybe hit up the senior center, go out for lunch.”

Volunteers aren’t licensed or certified to provide medical care, although they do learn about dementia, which affects many of their clients.

“We’re the social butterflies of the health world,” Hoefert said. “We’re not doing any medications or lifting, toileting, bathing – none of that stuff.”

Polly Newberry, 83, called the program a godsend. Regular visits from her volunteer companion are among services, along with help from friends and neighbors, that allow her to remain in her Coeur d’Alene home after giving up her car a couple of years ago as her eyesight declined.

The retired cosmetologist and formerly avid golfer said she was run over by a golf cart a decade ago.

“It didn’t break any bones, but it sure bent a lot of them,” she said. “I had to give up golf, and it broke my heart and my spirit and I’ve been going downhill ever since.”

Arthritis set in, and she’s been having trouble with her feet. Her companion ferries her to doctor appointments and on shopping trips. After a good appointment with Newberry’s “foot doctor” recently, they went for an indoor walk.

“I walked Wal-Mart and had just a wonderful time,” she said.

Robertson has four clients now, including his father-in-law. He spends as many as 28 hours a week with them in total.

How Robertson and his clients spend their time together varies. They practice putting, play cribbage, eat cookies, watch sports, read. Some clients have become good friends.

His father-in-law, Gordon “Rusty” Wells, 85, has dementia and macular degeneration and lives with Robertson and his wife, Claire Robertson, 55.

A former bass guitarist for an old-time fiddlers group, Wells got his nickname from his formerly long, red hair. He’s lost his nouns. Raisins became “you know, the little black things.” Wells’ pronouns are going, Dennis Robertson said.

Robertson’s training through Senior Companions has been helpful as they deal with the surprises – and frequent changes – associated with dementia.

He and his wife chose a roomy house with no stairs – easier to navigate – in part to ease Wells’ struggle as his health declined. Said his daughter: “We wanted him to live nicely in his old age.”

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