Seniors Caring for Seniors, Heart and Soul
For some seniors, the experience of old age means wanting company and never having it.
Due simply to their later stage of life, seniors often experience the shrinking of their social circle. In many cases, spouses, family members, and friends have passed away— and sometimes those that are left seem busy with careers and families of their own. Pervasive loneliness fills their days. Transportation challenges, like no longer being able to drive, are often further isolating.
The ramifications of loneliness and social isolation in the elderly can be quite significant. A 2020 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine notes that these factors contribute to:
- higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
- a 50% percent increased risk of dementia.1
- a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.1
- increased risk of premature death from all causes, rivaling those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.1
Perhaps due to a general unease with the realities of growing old, we often tend to turn our eyes away from the challenges of aging. Along with that, we often view elders not as whole people with rich histories and talents to share, but as lingering shadows, dimly there in the background and slipping from our attention as we tend to our hectic lives. Too many seniors feel forgotten.
But old age doesn’t have to mean isolation, social exclusion, or a growing sense of invisibility. At Catholic Social Services (CSS), we are committed to making sure seniors remain vitally connected— to other people and to their community.
This commitment shines through in our Senior Companion program, a dual-beneficiary program that engages active, low-income seniors in serving as Senior Companions to seniors who are often homebound. Through the program, each Senior Companion receives a stipend and travel reimbursement to visit their clients for 15+ hours a week. This service helps both the individual receiving the visits and the Senior Companion making them.
After all, for a more homebound senior, the hours can drag, with each day looking much like the last. A scheduled visit from a familiar, friendly face at the door can mean everything— something to look forward to, a reason to get out of bed and get dressed. It’s a chance to enjoy company at home or to get out of the house for a fun excursion; either scenario provides much-needed interaction, socialization, and inspiration.
Meanwhile, there are also many seniors who are still active and about, but yearning for meaningful opportunities to contribute to their communities. These seniors often feel they have much to give and that their time and energy is an abundant resource that is underutilized and undervalued. Many crave the chance to actively participate in bettering the world around them.
At CSS, we believe that for seniors at every stage delight, enjoyment, and purpose in life remains possible— if only we provide the opportunity and means.
This is what the Senior Companion program does; it provides the chance for seniors to connect with others, to enjoy isolation-busting conversations and activities, and to experience a consistent and empathetic presence in their lives. The company and the outings that the program provides adds richness to their routine and bolsters their wellbeing, easing the burdens of age-related loneliness for all involved.
Wanda has been a Senior Companion with CSS for three years. She has a passion for helping others, and her enthusiasm is unmistakable. At 73, she is clearly young at— and generous of— heart. She is also a people person to the core.
Wanda is rich in spirit, but perhaps not as rich in the financial sense. As she tells it: “I live on a very, very fixed income— no frilly kinds of money. I’m lucky if I break even, but the extra income I earn through Senior Companion allows me to go out to eat, find entertainment, go shopping— that’s because these are the kinds of things I get to do together with my clients. Together, we try to focus on active things, socializing, and being out. I need this as much as they do.”
She goes on to share, “These people start out as strangers and become your clients, and then they become your friends. I have so many new friends! It’s like the pebble you throw in the lake and then it ripples because you also connect with their families.” The friendship and support that the program enables does seem to work both ways, providing Senior Companions with gratifying opportunities to connect socially while making a difference and providing more isolated seniors with the vital human interaction they need for their mental, emotional, and physical health. As Wanda notes, “For a couple of them [my clients], I’m pretty much it, and they’ve told me that.”
It’s unfortunately true. For some of our 400+ Senior Companion clients, life can feel severely limited and empty of joy. As Wanda explains: “Some of my clients have come to the point when they can’t get out or drive any longer, and they’d never really developed interests or hobbies, so there’s this constant loneliness and boredom. If that was me, I’d be a lost soul. We have a lot of lost souls out there. And they shouldn’t be. No matter what their life has been like, we [CSS’ Senior Companions] are there to make a difference now.”
She goes on to share, “In our society, we feed our seniors and have programs for their healthcare. Medically, we can take care of the body, but you have to take care of the heart and soul of these people. That’s what we [Senior Companions] are nurturing, that’s what we’re taking care of. It gives me a purpose.”
In some cases, CSS Senior Companion relationships have lasted for 20 years. Whether new or enduring, these are incredibly important bonds: deeply life-affirming, adding vitality, comfort, and color to the lives of low-income seniors who might otherwise feel left in the shadows.
Senior Companion is a part of CSS’ efforts to help keep seniors independent and aging gracefully. As Wanda notes: “Many of my clients’ families have a sense of peace in knowing that I’m there for that loved one when they can’t be… it’s just that sense of caring and giving and taking care of others. I’m blessed to be able to do it.” There is certainly grace in that— grace added to the lives of those whom Wanda visits and grace threaded through her own life each time she shows up at their door, ready to fill her purpose of serving as a companion, heart and soul.
1 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2020. Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults: Opportunities for the Health Care System. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.