By Cody Neff
Losing independence hurts and it’s only made worse by loneliness. Raleigh County is taking steps to ease the pain.
Raleigh is now one of 23 counties in West Virginia taking part in the Senior Companion Program. The program, which was started in 1974 by the Corporation of National and Community Service, aims to help seniors and the handicapped.
“Our main goal is to provide companionship to individuals who are 18 or older and at risk of losing their independence,” Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Council project director Rodney Poling said. “We go wherever the person is and help them out.”
Poling says the program was created with both seniors’ strengths and weaknesses in mind.
“The purpose was to take older individuals that have all kinds of life experiences and put those experiences to use in the community and make them feel like a part of their community again,” Poling said. “It builds their self-esteem again. It helps them forget a lot of their own problems. It was a program designed for the older individuals who need companionship.”
Companionship is the most helpful part of the program and gives something to both parties, Poling says.
“The volunteer and client become friends,” Poling said. “That’s the most important thing. It gives the folks someone to talk to. Companions can read, play games, go to a senior center or attend a community event. Companions can also accompany clients to a doctor’s appointment, the grocery store and pretty much anything that they want to do. We’re not allowed to attend political functions while they’re on duty, though.”
Becoming a senior companion is a simple process and is paid for by the program.
“Volunteers have to be able to pass a background check, which is an FBI and state fingerprint check,” Poling said. “The doctor has to sign for a physical and say that a person is able to volunteer. Once everything has been taken care of, volunteers get the guidelines and we put them out to help in the community.”
Volunteers must also meet certain income guidelines to be paid for time put into the program.
“The good thing about this is that it’s a tax-free stipend, which doesn’t count against any benefits that volunteers might receive, like food stamps and things like that,” Poling said. “We pay them a stipend of $2.65 an hour. We also pay volunteers for mileage from their house to the client’s house. We pay out 40 cents per mile. This stipend can really help someone if they’re in a low-income bracket. It can help them to buy things that they might otherwise not be able afford.”
Poling says volunteers get much more than money out of the companion program, though.
“From the companions I hear everything from, ‘I really feel that this is what the good Lord wants me to do’ to ‘It gives me something to do and makes me feel like I’m helping the community. It feels good to give back,’” Poling said. “Volunteers say they love taking care of people and they love helping people. It helps build their self-esteem.”
Volunteers aren’t the only ones who benefit from the program, though.
“I get a lot of feedback from clients who say that they don’t know what they’d do if it wasn’t for the senior companion coming in to visit them once or twice a week,” Poling said. “Sometimes that’s the only person they see through the week. They wouldn’t have a way to get to any appointments. Some of them wouldn’t have a way to get their groceries.”
“The companionship is also a big part of it,” Poling added. “It gives clients something to look forward to. It helps them get a bit of confidence to go back out into the community and attend functions with someone who can help make sure they get to where they’re going and back safely.”
Poling says those involved in the program would like to see at least five or six volunteers in Raleigh and he knows everyone can benefit from the help.
“This is a program that not only gives to the volunteer, but to the client as well,” Poling said. “It builds the volunteer in the way that it keeps them active and keeps their mind busy. Plus it goes out and helps individuals in the community who might be falling through the cracks of not being wealthy enough to pay for someone to come in and help them, but they make just enough to not get a state medical card.”
For more information about the program and its requirements, volunteers can contact Crystal Foley at the Raleigh County Commission on Aging, Inc. at 304-255-1397, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
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