Pollyanna was 98 when she asked for services that would enable her to remain in her home. Midge, a senior citizen herself, was assigned to her through Catholic Charities’ Senior Companion Program in the Diocese of Joliet, Ill. 

Pollyanna had no surviving family. Midge, now 79, had lost her husband and wanted something to do, so she became her companion for 10 years until Pollyanna, now 108, recently went into a nursing home. 

“It was not long ago that Pollyanna was teaching Midge some of her cooking,” program director Kristin Ruda said. 

The bond the women formed is typical of the mutual benefits in many senior ministries and programs across the country. In Joliet, the Senior Companion Program enlists low-income volunteers 55 and older who receive small stipends and mileage reimbursement as nontaxable income. 

“They are seniors helping out seniors,” Glenn Van Cura, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Joliet, said. 

The Senior Companion Program has three components. One for social interaction assigns volunteers to visit housebound seniors and spend time sitting or watching TV with them, writing letters and preparing simple meals. 

In another part of the program, volunteers provide transportation to and from medical appointments, run errands or take clients shopping or for fun outings such as looking at the autumn leaves. 

The third service is respite, in which a volunteer is present for safety, not home care, so that a caregiver can take a break to run errands or even take a nap. 

The program has 90 Senior Companion volunteers, many in their 80s.  

Volunteer Robert Rundil, a 72-year-old veteran, had been assigned to Richard, a 75-year-old veteran diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Richard was bedbound and had no family support. Rundil was supposed to spend six hours a week with him, but he spent more than 40 hours with him.  

“It was an amazing coupling,” Ruda said. “Robert takes him to the veterans hospital and has even been training Richard’s dogs and cats.” 

There are nearly 400 volunteers in the diocese’s Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, which matches nonprofit organizations with retired people who want to serve the community. The diocese also has a Foster Grandparent Program that places low-income seniors in children’s programs such as Head Start. 

“It gives the children one-on-one contact with a parent or grandparent figure, and they form a bond,” Van Cura said. “The volunteers get a feeling of accomplishment and of contributing to society.” 

The oldest foster grandparent volunteered until she was 100. 

Judy Schlenke, 72, is coordinator of the Ministry of Care at Mother of Sorrows Parish in Murrysville, Pa., in the Diocese of Greensburg. 

Fifty volunteers, many of them seniors themselves, visit parishioners who are homebound or in hospitals and nursing homes. 

“People need encouragement and sometimes they just need good listeners,” Schlenke said. “It’s also a comfort that someone from the church remembers them. One man started volunteering because he appreciated how someone had stopped to see him at the hospital. 

“We have many wonderful stories, and sometimes they happen when you are wondering why you are going,” she said. “Then you find out that the people think you have given them the world, and all you have given them is 10 minutes.” 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.

Serving Seniors (sidebar)

The Diocese of Phoenix, Ariz., takes senior services seriously; its affiliate corporation, Foundation For Senior Living Inc. (FSL) has 500 employees, 100 funding sources and operates four solar energy companies to support its operations. 

There are 31 corporations under the foundation, 15 major programs and 44 service locations, some of them located in the other two dioceses in Arizona. 

“We have a very high standard of excellence and reputation because of who we serve, who we are and what we represent from Catholic social teaching,” president and CEO Guy Mikkelsen told OSV. 

FSL runs Adult Day Health services for seniors and adults with disabilities and serious mental illnesses, and it has an Affordable Housing Development program that has developed housing complexes on 17 campuses. Residents have access to on-site recreation, transportation and other services. 

The Home Care program provides home health care under the Medicare and Medicaid systems, including homemaker services and personal care. It also offers services such as respite care, counseling and caregiver training. 

Although some FSL services are provided to younger people with disabilities, most of the programs are for seniors, and the need for senior care is increasing. 

“The United States is going through the most dramatic social change in the history of the world, and there are three things going on simultaneously,” Mikkelsen said. “One is a great population growth. We have a huge demographic shift as the senior population doubles, and third, we have cultural diversity.” 

In Arizona, he said, seniors make up about 12.5 percent of the community, and by 2025 about 25 percent of the population will be over 65.

What remains constant is that women tend to live longer than men. 

“So they, unfortunately, have the accumulated social disadvantages like lower wages and lower benefit structures,” Mikkelsen said. “Yet the needs are there for access to health care, transportation, formal and informal caregivers and for those caregivers to be trained.”

FSL runs training centers for weatherization programs, acts as a service center for other nonprofits and has been a consultant for numerous projects, including helping the government of Romania set up an adult foster care program. 

“We generate new ideas because it’s our culture, and we try to be a standard-setter in the community,” Mikkelsen said.

Additional articles from our Senior Living special section:

Social media tools keep seniors connected

Older Catholics find romance and companionship online

Catholic radio, TV draw large senior audience