Last week the nation honored the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a life dedicated to the causes of equality, justice, and service. Dr. King said "Life’s most urgent question is: what are you doing for others?" The volunteers of the Senior Companion Program can certainly answer that question.

The Senior Companion Program was started in 1974 and is part of Senior Corps, a federal organization established to provide Americans 55 and over the opportunity to contribute their unique knowledge, skills, and experience in service to their communities. There are currently over 500,000 senior Americans serving in Senior Corps projects and programs. Senior Corps is administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service, which also administers AmeriCorps.

The mission of the Senior Companion Program is to provide frail and/or homebound seniors assistance in maintaining independence in their own homes. The program joins senior volunteers with adults in their community who have difficulty completing day-to-day tasks. Companions assist with running errands, such as grocery shopping and paying bills, providing transportation to medical appointments, and alerting doctors and family members to potential problems. What might be of most benefit to those they serve, however, is the friendship and interaction that a Senior Companion can offer.

Companions not only serve other seniors in need, they also serve the family and/or caregiver of their clients by offering respite. For families and caregivers, providing the necessary care required by an elderly relative can be very stressful. Having a volunteer available to come and provide companionship for the client, while the caregiver takes some much needed time off to recharge and take care of his/her own personal needs, can significantly reduce some of the worry and strain.

The program is open to healthy volunteers, age 55 and older, with limited incomes. All applicants undergo a background check and interview process. Once selected to be a Senior Companion, volunteers receive pre-service orientation and training, as well as monthly in-service training on topics such as Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and mental health issues. Companions may serve up to 20 hours per week.

Senior Companions enjoy several benefits for their participation in the program. Volunteers receive a tax-free stipend of $2.65 per hour, reimbursement for transportation, annual physical examinations, and supplemental accident and liability insurance while on duty. In addition, studies show that volunteering improves optimism and increases life expectancy. For most Senior Companions, the greatest benefit is the opportunity to make new friendships and find out that few things feel as good as knowing that you are needed.

In northeast Oklahoma, the Senior Companion Program provides free service to residents of Ottawa, Craig and Rogers Counties. To be eligible for the program, individuals must also be age 60 or over and need assistance on a weekly basis.

The Senior Companion Program of Ottawa, Craig and Rogers Counties is proud to be a United Way agency. Currently, the program has 58 volunteers serving 168 clients in the three counties.

For more information regarding volunteering for the Senior Companion Program or to make a referral for an individual in need of service, please visit the website or call Ramie Tirres at the Ottawa County Health Department, 540-2481, Ext. 210.