First State program: Companionship, friendship with seniority

GEORGETOWN — Sheila “Smokey” Hiles’ spouse had passed away. She was alone and faced the possibility of going into a skilled-level care environment.

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Drew Allen, right, adjusts the hair of her Senior Companion recipient/friend Sheila Hiles during First State Community Action agency’s Christmas luncheon for the Senior Companion Program.

“They wanted to move me elsewhere. No way Jose; this is my house and I’m not selling,” said the 81-year-old Sussex Countian. “Then, one day this lady appeared on the scene.”

That lady is Drew Allen.

“We’ve become friends,” said Ms. Hiles.

“We’ve become real good companions … like sisters,” said Ms. Allen, 65.

Theirs is one of the budding personal friendships borne in First State Community Action Agency’s Senior Companion Program.

“We focus on those older adults – whether they are disabled or not – that are homebound,” said Valarie Wright, FSCAA Senior Companion Program Manager. “The mission is to help them maintain their independence to stay at home without resorting to assisted living or a nursing facility.”

The program matches companions – age 55 or older – with needy homebound seniors in a safe environment.

There is a safety net.

Prospective companions undergo background checks – FBI, State Bureau of Identification and the National Sex Offender – which are paid for by First State Community Action Agency.

The program is part of the Corporation for National Community Service that falls under the Senior Corps Program, which provides part of the funding, Ms. Wright said.

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Elizabeth Cornish, left, and her senior companion Carolyn Jones stand in front of the tree during First State Community Action Agency’s Senior Companion Program Christmas luncheon.

Companions visit the homebound recipients several days a week for several hours. They frequently do light housekeeping, light meal preparation and non-medical care, drive them to do errands, medical appointments and other stops.

Through this program, a senior suffering from depression, loneliness may find their only point of contact sometimes is that companion, Ms. Wright said.

“What is different about us compared other home healthcare is they (companions) don’t get rotated. Whoever they are assigned to, they stick with. That is where that companionship comes in,” Ms. Wright said. “They build a rapport with each other. We try to match them up based on preferences. It could be similar hobbies, something that they can really relate to.”

Elizabeth Cornish, 78, has been on both sides of the fence. She was a companion but following surgery is now a companion program recipient.

“When you are a senior companion you need somebody to come in and talk with you, to bathe you if you need bathing, go to store, or clean the house for you,” said Ms. Cornish. “But just being there, having somebody there in a house where you live by yourself and it’s lonely. You can have a dog or a cat but it’s not like a person. You might have children but they may be way off, or might be working.”

Carolyn Jones is Ms. Cornish’s companion. She also is paired with Ms. Cornish’s sister, Frances Smack.

“I enjoy going to the house. And the people that I am going to see appreciate that I am coming,” said Ms. Jones. “It means something for somebody to come in and spend three or four hours. I feel good when I go to talk to clients or I help them.”

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Janice Young, left, and Claudette Furst are among the recipient/companion pairings in First State Community Action Agency’s Senior Companion Program.

Claudette Furst, 85, of Milton, relishes the weekly visits she makes to the Rehoboth home of 63-year-old Janice Young, who is disabled.

“They called me and said we want you to go down to Rehoboth and meet this person and I went down and we fell immediately into a relationship,” said Ms. Furst, who has been a companion in the program for two years.

“I had my first companion two years ago, just a couple months,” said Ms. Young. “But she had to go; she was allergic to my dog. I guess I waited for a good solid year to two before out of the blue of the western sky I got a call and she came over.”

“For me, I just want to introduce her to so many different things. There are so many different things as a disabled person she is able to do. She is so smart, she is therapist by trade,” said Ms. Furst. “That is my whole goal. I want to help her.”

Companions receive a non-taxable stipend – $2.65 an hour – plus 45 cents per mile reimbursement. That covers travel for taking their client/recipient to the grocery store, doctor appointment or other trips. They also receive sick and vacation pay.

“A lot of people when they do age they do feel like they need a purpose in life when they retire,” said Ms. Wright.

At present, there are 45 companions in the program in Sussex County.

“The amount of clients varies because some have more than one recipient,” said Ms. Wright, who oversees FSCAA senior companion programs in Kent and New Castle counties. “Sussex County is our largest group, versus the other two counties put together.”

“And the great thing is … I get the stories from the companions as well as the recipients of the program, letting me know how this program has impacted them in a very positive way,” Ms. Wright said.

There is a waiting game.

“I believe with all of my heart this program is going to be so huge because I have quite a few clients on a waiting list,” said Ms. Wright. “But I don’t have all of the volunteers I need to serve.

“Some people don’t have anybody,” said Ms. Jones. “They always say, ‘No child left behind. It should be, ‘No senior left behind’ also.”

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at

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