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Sacramento County’s Senior Companion program looking to grow

Darrel Hubbs helps Jonnie Knighton, 77, as they take groceries to his car in Natomas on Nov. 10. Hubbs, 76, has been a dedicated Senior Companion volunteer for the past three years. He visits four clients a week, helping them run errands. With the county's growing senior population, the longtime senior volunteer program is expanding.
Darrel Hubbs helps Jonnie Knighton, 77, as they take groceries to his car in Natomas on Nov. 10. Hubbs, 76, has been a dedicated Senior Companion volunteer for the past three years. He visits four clients a week, helping them run errands. With the county's growing senior population, the longtime senior volunteer program is expanding. rpench@sacbee.com

One morning each week, Darrel Hubbs shows up at the North Natomas apartment complex where Marie Robinson lives, ready to help her run errands or take her downtown to doctors’ appointments.

“Wednesday is my day,” said Robinson, 63, who is disabled and no longer drives. “I can’t even walk to the bus stop here. If I didn’t have Darrel, I’d be in a predicament.”

They have a lot in common. Both worked hard all their lives – Hubbs, 76, as a roofing contractor who now volunteers with Sacramento County’s Senior Companion program; and Robinson as a medical secretary in Southern California. They like talking about current events, and they like the same music.

“Classical,” said Hubbs, as Robinson nodded in agreement, seated in an easy chair in her small apartment. “And we got Sinatra. We got Tony Bennett. We got big-band music.”

Because of the needs of the county’s rapidly growing aging population, the Senior Companion program is in a growth phase of its own. The program, which matches older and disabled clients with low-income retirees like Hubbs, has about 300 clients – and less than 30 volunteers. Those volunteers help seniors with transportation and errands, provide respite care for primary caregivers and in general ease the burdens that can come with the isolation of age.

The goal for now is modest: to increase the pool of volunteers – who must pass a physical exam as well as an extensive background check – to 34.

“No, it’s not enough,” said program director Mark Snaer. “My longer-term goal is to grow the program beyond that.”

Funded primarily by a grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service, the Senior Companion program is shifting its focus from assisting clients at seniors centers and adult day health programs to a home-based, one-on-one approach.

For many older Americans – up to 44 million, according to a 2011 AARP study – isolation caused by mobility problems can lead to a crippling spiral of depression and physical ailments.

“The purpose of Senior Volunteers is to help people maintain their independence and live at home as long as possible,” Snaer said. “We serve people still living independently.”

Sacramento County’s population aged 60 and older grew by 40 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to U.S. Census figures, and is expected to continue its steep rise as the baby-boom generation enters older age. By 2035, the state Department of Finance projects, the number of Californians who are 85 and older will triple to almost 2 million.

Volunteers for the Senior Companion program must be 55 or older and have an income less than twice the poverty rate: That amounts to about $1,800 a month for a single-person household. They receive a small stipend for their Senior Companion work, along with mileage reimbursement. The clients also have to be low-income, and are screened and referred by a variety of seniors agencies.

“We’re talking about the poor working with the poor,” said Hubbs, who lives in North Sacramento.

He works with four clients each week, spending an average of five hours apiece helping them.

Jonnie Knighton, 77, was a postal clerk in Oakland for decades before she retired to Sacramento to live near a daughter. Knighton has a host of physical maladies, including kidney failure and anemia. She’s a liver transplant recipient and has undergone two hip replacements. And she has a pacemaker.

“I get weak and tired,” she said.

But Knighton has a good attitude, and she enjoys her visits with Hubbs, who picks her up every Tuesday in North Natomas to run her to Walmart or take her to the doctor.

“He’s a very pleasant person,” Knighton said. “And he’ll bring a bag of groceries in the house for me when we get home.”

For Hubbs, the decision to volunteer with Senior Companions was an easy one.

“I get excited about getting up in the morning and having somewhere to go besides sitting in front of the TV,” he said. “I want to be doing something the rest of my life.

“And I’m lucky my health allows me to do this. Some of these folks have been through hell with their health issues, but they don’t complain. They’re tough. They’re very resilient people.”

Call The Bee’s Anita Creamer, (916) 321-1136. Follow her on Twitter @AnitaCreamer.

For more information

To learn more about Sacramento County’s Senior Companion program, go to www.dhhs.saccounty.net/SAS/Pages/SAS-Home.aspx and click on “Programs.”

You can also call (916) 875-3622.

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