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Once a week, weather permitting, Roger Barth picks up Rob Kenney at his Manhattan apartment, and the two friends walk very slowly down the street to a park bench. Kenney, 68, is still recovering from major spinal surgery in the fall of 2009. He credits the 78-year-old Barth with helping him graduate from a walker to a cane by "getting me out of the house."
The men first met last spring through a federal program called Senior Companions, which assigns older volunteers like Barth to visit and assist frail 50-plus people like Kenney. But their formal connection soon blossomed into friendship, which is not uncommon for program participants.
"Many of our volunteers sign up to do a good deed but end up with a friend for life," says Dr. Erwin Tan, director of Senior Corps, an umbrella agency that encompasses Senior Companions. "When you give love and compassion, you get back many times over."
The benefits of volunteering, Tan points out, are both physical and psychic. Scientists have found that seniors who regularly volunteer have a lower risk of heart disease and live significantly longer than those who don't. Their service gives many Companions "a renewed purpose in life," he adds, while expanding their social horizons, a formula for greater contentment.
Barth first enrolled in the Companions program in the summer of 1999, not long after he had to put his mother in a nursing home. He had been her only caregiver for four years, 24 hours a day. "I didn't realize there was help available for people like me," he recalls. "I volunteer in order to give back to other people what I didn't have when I needed it."
He spends about 25 hours a week visiting Kenney and two other clients. Sometimes he simply makes it possible for a caregiver to have a few hours off-duty. Occasionally he will run errands for clients, mailing letters or picking up something from the grocery store. Mostly he talks, though he actually does more listening and observing. One of the most important roles of the Companions is to spot trouble brewing in a household — a client who has been mistreated by a caregiver, for example, or who seems more and more confused.
"I've lost any number of them," Barth says sadly, recalling clients who have died. A favorite was a woman who walked about her 17-floor apartment house bent over at a 90-degree angle: "She was always in such pain, but she kept her sense of humor. She used to say she knew everybody in the building — by their shoes."
Headquarters for the 113 Senior Companions in New York is the East Side Settlement House. That's where they receive pre-service and in-service training and where they meet regularly with social workers to review their cases. The training covers such topics as tolerance, home safety, advance directives and paying attention to clients' body language. The classes are intended to help the Companions better deal with their own aging issues as well as prepare them for serving others.
Companions who satisfy income eligibility standards are paid $2.65 an hour. On a national level, there are 14,500 Companions in every state serving 61,000 clients. In most locations around the country, there is a waiting list of people who need to be served.
When Barth and Kenney sit on the park bench, they make an unlikely pair — Barth a hefty bear of a man, Kenney a slim ex-marathoner. "We talk," Kenney says. "We check out the squirrels, who come right up to us and beg. Together we watch the trees come into full bloom, the seasons change. You know, Roger has been wonderful to me and for me."