Local | Senior Lifestyle

Volunteers can change local seniors’ lives

Jewish Family & Children’s Service is a program site for Pima Council on Aging’s Senior Companion Program. Senior companion volunteers age 55 and older help homebound and isolated older adults continue living independently in their homes by providing companionship, transportation, and caregiver respite.

“The need for volunteers is outrageously great,” says Elaine Mami, JFCS Jewish Elder Access program assistant.

Paul “Pinchas” Zohav, community chaplain for the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona in the Northwest, says that he’s become aware “we have a significant number of isolated members residing in adult family homes and other senior communities.”

“I invite other community seniors to join me and come to know the experience and richness and joy available from including them in our lives. A true mitzvah,” says Zohav.

Suzette Gonzalez, program coordinator for PCOA, agrees that “senior companions are a lifesaving change for both the volunteer and the senior.”

“The priority is making a good match. It tends to build long-term relationships and friendships. Volunteers can see their long-term work and see the skills their companion develops,” says Gonzalez. She confirms the waiting list of seniors hoping for a companion is very long while the volunteers are fewer than needed.

Many of the people served live alone, are isolated, and frequently depressed. Through the friendship and encouragement of companions, people who rarely or never leave their homes have the opportunity to reconnect with their communities and regain some of their independence. Volunteers say that as much as they give, and enjoy giving, they receive back in gratitude, in friendship, and in the satisfaction of making a

Senior companions are trained volunteers who visit with their clients one or more times weekly, depending on the needs of each person being served. Volunteers receive monthly PCOA training, individual coaching and support, $2.65 per hour stipend for their service, and mileage reimbursement to offset the costs of volunteering. “The stipend is tax-exempt, so companions
receiving any government benefits are not affected by this income,” Gonzalez says. Some senior companions serve as many as 20 or 30 hours each week.  “Some earn a couple hundred dollars in a month,” Mami adds.

Besides the fulfillment of helping others, ongoing training offers opportunities for personal growth and development. JFCS offers additional monthly training to its volunteers on local Jewish life, culture, history, and holidays. “This training also is interesting and rewarding,” says Mami.

Gonzalez explains that companions might teach seniors coping skills, how to access Sunvan transportation, or take them out in the community to participate in classes, activities, or sing-alongs, or simply go to a movie. “The seniors gain the confidence to go out on their own more and become more aware of social opportunities in the community,” she adds.

Volunteers need mobility and their own vehicle for transportation, Gonzalez says. “Clients are homebound because of the lack of transportation or because they live in a remote location, or are too far from a
bus stop.”

“Seniors are so happy to have company and to have a companion take them places. They’re just glad to get out there,” Mami says, adding,“Transportation is available in Tucson but not always easy to access or climb into. Volunteers have an insured car or can drive the senior’s car to places other ride services won’t take them. So many low-income clients don’t have a smartphone or the money to call an Uber ride.”

Other stations facilitating the Senior Companion Program are Tohono O’odham and Pascua Yaqui nations, Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest, the Southern Arizona Veteran’s Administration Healthcare System, and St. Luke’s Home. Senior companions also serve clients of PCOA’s family caregiving and in-home services programs.

Those interested in becoming a senior companion volunteer should call 305-3453. For JFCS’s Jewish Elder Access services or for other volunteer opportunities, call 795-0300. Seniors interested in signing up for the companion service waiting list or learning about other PCOA and community organization services should call 790-7262.