CLACKAMAS COUNTY, Ore. (KOIN) — “I take her wherever we need to go,” Ellen Morgan says as she drives to a retirement community in Milwaukie. This is her weekly appointment to pick up Arlene and help her run errands, part of Clackamas County’s Senior Companion Program.
At its core, the program is about seniors helping seniors. Volunteers have to be at least 55 years old (though many, including Morgan, are older), with a limited income (about $2,200 a month or less), and have to be able to help clients get to appointments and other services.
The program has been around for more than 30 years. Morgan is the third generation of her family to volunteer.
“My grandma did it, then my aunt started doing it, my mother does it and now I do it,” she said.
In fact her mother, Carol Briney is still doing it, even at 87.
“It’s great for me. Gives me something to do. It helps me more than it helps them,” Briney said. “I was just sitting on my couch getting old when I started this.”
The woman who trained Briney retired from volunteering at 93 and completed the circle by becoming a client herself. Some of Briney’s clients are significantly younger than her, though. One 65-year-old woman used to feel guilty having Briney push her around in a wheelchair. But Briney calls this the “best job you could ever have” and says everyone she works with is so kind.
“Never have I had a job where I’ve been so appreciated,” she said.
Helping house-bound seniors run errands is a crucial part of the job, but Volunteer Connection program coordinator Lois Orner said the volunteers’ work combating loneliness is just as important.
“It’s immeasurable, what it means for people,” Orner said. “In order to age in place … you have to be in relationship with other people, and the kind of support that companions provide is really powerful.”
It goes both ways. Morgan said her clients are like family.
“I need them,” she said. “That’s my reason to get up out of bed, my reason to get dressed.”
She takes one woman out to breakfast twice a week so she doesn’t have to stay home alone all day. She laughs with Arlene while helping her pick out birthday cards at the Dollar Tree. She plays pinochle with Arlene’s husband Larry, another one of her clients.
Coincidentally, Arlene used to volunteer for a similar program when she lived in Montana. After the couple moved back to Oregon, she started looking for a similar program, but this time to enroll as a client since health problems had made it so neither one of them could drive anymore.
“I said to Larry, if they had it in Montana, our little town in Montana, there’s gotta be a senior companion program here,” she said.
Arlene and Larry were lucky, though; Clackamas County’s program is one of just four in the entire state. There’s also a waiting list for prospective clients.
“The need is many many times our capacity in the program,” Orner said.
Two dozen companions serve around 100 clients across the county, as far away as Welches, but often clustered in cities like Canby, Lake Oswego, Molalla and Oregon City. Volunteers do get a small, non-taxable stipend, and they are reimbursed for mileage, Orner said. The funding caps out around 30 volunteers, so they have room for more, but not a ton. As a government agency, they also aren’t set up to accept donations, but they are working on a grant to provide similar services without a limit on the number of volunteers.
If you’re interested in becoming a Senior Companion, learn more here.