In a vast, rural state like Maine, social isolation is a part of life, especially so for seniors who are stuck in their homes because of physical and financial challenges. That isolation can lead to loneliness, which is considered by some experts a serious public health issue.
In western Maine, a federal program is attempting to address the loneliness problem in a fairly simple way.
Most days of the week, you can find Kitty Gee of Chesterville knocking on doors across Frankin County. Gee is a Senior Companion, part of a federal program that connects homebound or isolated seniors to a friendly visitor every week.
On this day, Gee is visiting Wanetta Nurse of Farmington.
“How’s my best girl today? You doin’ good, eh? Looking pretty as always,” Gee says.
“Good to see you, Kitty,” Nurse says.
“Good to see you too, darlin’,” Gee says.
The two have known each other for about a year. But they laugh like old friends.
Gee is 87. Nurse is 74, and she has health issues that make it hard for her to walk or even to pursue former hobbies such as knitting and sewing.
“And when Kitty showed up, it was like, ‘Oh yay!’ It was someone to laugh with,” she says.
During the visits, they talk about their families, the old days and men.
“I’ve been trying to find a dancing partner,” Gee says. “Hard to find. Because people our age, they don’t want to do much. You and I, we’re ready to roll. We want to get movin’.”
Gee became a Senior Companion nearly five years ago after her husband died. She was at loose ends, she says, and needed something to do.
“So I said, this will get me out among people, I’ll have someone to talk to, and maybe I’ll do some good. And these people I see are like my age. So we have a lot in common. We can relate, see,” she says.
Gee spends about 25 hours a week visiting seven clients. She receives a small federal stipend of $2.65 an hour. But more importantly, she says, being a companion gives her a purpose. And Nurse says the visits give her something to look forward to.
“Sometimes she’s laughing so hard – it’s just so nice to see someone laughing. And to be included in that. It means a lot,” she says.
“These programs, I think, are essential for our aging populations in our state.” says Kerry Faria, a community services specialist at Seniors Plus in Lewiston, which partners with the University of Maine to implement the Senior Companion program in western Maine. “Many times people will end up isolating themselves because their friends are dying around them. Their family, their siblings, have died off. They may be the only one left out of their generation. So they just find themselves kind of alone.”
The demand for the service is high. Across Maine, the Senior Companion program serves around 600 people. But there’s a waitlist of more than 300, which isn’t likely to shrink, because the program’s funding is capped.
Faria says the program is always on the lookout for volunteers, particularly men. And there are a few.
Bud Houghton, 66, is a logger from Carthage. His path to becoming a Senior Companion started when he was 40. That’s when he first volunteered with a different program that helped seniors apply for fuel assistance. At the time, Houghton was out of work while recovering from neck surgery. Then his wife died of cancer.
“I got into volunteering and getting my mind off myself and started thinking of other people, and it worked for me, know what I mean? I love the older people. They need that friendship. They need that companionship. You are their ticket to the outside world,” he says.
After he retired several years ago , Houghton became a Senior Companion. One of the people he visits is 61-year-old Bill Gates. Houghton likes to take Gates on drives to scenic outlooks.
Gates has dementia. The visit is as much to provide companionship as it is to give Gates’ wife some respite.
Gates hums as he and Houghton wind along the roads of Franklin County. As much as Houghton enjoys being a companion, he says it isn’t always easy. He has witnessed clients deteriorate. Some have passed away. But these relationships, Houghton says, are deeper than his other friendships.
“It changes you. You end up doing things for other people. It’s not you that’s important. It’s their wellbeing that’s important,” he says.
And it’s the simple things, Houghton says, like taking a client for a picnic lunch, or a car ride, that make a difference. Things many of us take for granted.
The Senior Companion program operates in 12 of Maine’s counties.