Combating Loneliness through Companionship

When we interviewed Cleo, a Senior Companion of 10 years, about the impact of the program on her homebound senior clients, she said, “I think they live longer.” It turns out, she’s right.

Loneliness and social isolation are now acknowledged to be major public health risks. In fact, being lonely and socially isolated is worse for your health than obesity, and has the negative health impact of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. So when the Senior Companion program intervenes to provide companionship to older adults who are homebound, we not only help older adults feel better—we actually help them improve their health.

Considering that the senior population in Franklin County will almost double by 2040, it is increasingly important that we take steps to ensure the health of older adults. The Senior Companion program is one way Catholic Social Services has committed to supporting vulnerable seniors. Senior Companion is a dual-beneficiary program in which low-income, active older adults visit homebound older adults to provide companionship. The program addresses issues of loneliness and social isolation for both the Companions and their clients.

Cleo spends over 35 hours a week visiting her clients—who quickly become her friends. Sometimes she takes her clients to do errands or activities; other times she simply visits them in their homes. She told us, “When you get older, sometimes people forget about you.” Cleo credits the program for keeping her clients in their homes and out of nursing homes. This is important, Cleo said, because, “It’s important for them to stay in their surroundings.” She added bluntly that when seniors have to leave their homes, “They lose sight of things and they die.”

Our Senior Companions come from a wide range of ethnicities and backgrounds, which allows them to assist clients of their same culture in unique ways. Siblings Albert and Galina, Russian-American Companions of 20 years, told us that their clients would hardly be able to function without their help because their clients don’t know any English. These Companions help their clients read mail, make phone calls, and apply for services. Galina said she is in daily contact with her clients because otherwise, no one would know if they were okay. Similarly, Zahi, a Somali-American Companion, said his clients are so isolated that he is their only source of news, both local and from their home country.

It is clear that Senior Companions’ visits change their clients’ lives—clients report decreased symptoms of depression and say that they would not leave their homes if it wasn’t for their Companions. But Companions are quick to point out that the program does not just benefit their clients. Cleo told us, “It helps me, too, because I’m doing something for someone else.”

Senior Companions attend a monthly educational in-service and receive training on a wide range of issues that apply to either themselves or their clients—and often to both. This in-service also provides an opportunity for the Companions to build connections amongst themselves. Albert and Galina have been in the program for 20 years. They shared that the program helped them acclimate when they moved to Columbus from Moscow. The Corporation for National and Community Service reports that Senior Companions are healthier after only a year in the program.

In 2017, CSS’ Senior Companion program reached 539 vulnerable seniors in Franklin County and 90% of participants reported that they feel less lonely and more connected to their community. By targeting the health determinants of social isolation and loneliness through the Senior Companion program, CSS continues helping to make Columbus a place where seniors can age with grace, independence, and improved health.

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