Program offers companion to isolated, lonely seniors

Thursday, July 31, 2014

LYNN — As a teacher, Marge Callahan worked with children most of her life, and she thought she would in retirement as well, but a chance meeting caused an abrupt shift, and she has no regrets.

“I found out that kids don’t appreciate you nearly as well as seniors do,” she said with a laugh. “I feel like the Queen of Sheba as a companion.”

Callahan is part of Catholic Charities’ Companions to the Aging Program, which matches volunteers with elderly, some not much older than their companions. Coordinated by Linda Anderson, the free program is aimed at seniors with little or no family who have few visitors or friends and are isolated and lonely. Anderson said they are, for the most part, living independently, but that can change over the course of the relationship.

Mario DePascale of Revere began visiting his buddy at his companion’s home. He said he would bring him Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and crossword magazines when he visited each week, and the pair would swap stories. One week he showed up, however, and no one answered the door.

“I left the coffee by the door because I thought maybe he had just gone out,” he said.

DePascale said he eventually learned his friend had taken a fall and was in rehab, so now he visits him there. His companion is lucky that he has two sisters who visit him regularly, but DePascale said his companion likes to remind DePascale that he is his best friend.

“I tell his sisters, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be here until he doesn’t recognize me anymore,’” DePascale said with a smile.

Volunteers in the program go through four training sessions before being paired with a companion, Anderson said. The training focuses on communication skills but also on learning to pick up signs of things like elder abuse and dementia. Anderson said they also ask for a year’s commitment from volunteers so seniors aren’t confused or put off by a multiple companions. Catholic Charities has a waiting list of about nine seniors, and both DePascale and Callahan would urge anyone, young or old to join the program.

Callahan, who recently turned 80, admitted she came into the program reluctantly. She said she met a woman who couldn’t stop talking about how great an experience it was.

“I never dealt with the elderly before, but I feel very rewarded whenever I leave her (companion),” she said. “I was invited to her 91st birthday party.”

“That’s because you’re her friend now,” Anderson said.

Some people play cards, watch TV or read to their companions, but Anderson is quick to add there is no custodial care, no doing windows involved. Callahan said what her companion likes to do is talk.

“All we do is chat, but she is so funny,” she said. “She likes to talk about herself, too, she really has no interest in my past.”

But Callahan said that’s fine; she doesn’t mind listening.

Anderson said anyone who volunteers also has to be ready for the inevitable ending of the relationship, but just because the companions are elderly, don’t expect a relationship to be short-lived.

“Some people I have met have been seeing the same companion for four or five years,” Callahan said.

Like DePascale, she said she, too, would stick with her friend until the end, and when that comes, she will likely sign on for another.

“I didn’t think I would,” she said in a slight whisper. “But I would because there is such a need.”