By Kris Capps
For Senior Voice 

Senior Companions at work in Fairbanks, Delta Junction


December 1, 2017

Kris Capps photo

Cheryl LaFollette is director of the Senior Companion Program in Interior Alaska.

A new program in Interior Alaska is helping both senior volunteers and the seniors they serve. The goal is to help people stay in their own homes as long as possible.

The Senior Companion Program already has 18 volunteers on the roster, helping senior citizens in Fairbanks and Delta Junction, but director Cheryl LaFollette said there is always the need for more.

"There are 15,000 seniors in our area," said LaFollette, in Fairbanks. "Seven hundred of those are 85 years old and over.

"It's growing by leaps and bounds, the fastest growing senior population in the country," she added. "There are only 250 beds in this area at assisted living homes. That's one of the reasons this program is so crucial."

The program, funded by a federal grant, lists these requirements: Volunteers must be age 55 or older, make less than $30,120 per year, and be willing to donate 15 to 40 hours every week. The volunteers actually receive a very small stipend, about $2.65 an hour.

"I know that doesn't sound like much," La Follette said. "But if you volunteer 20 hours per week, you will add $2,756 to your income for the year."

"It is pennies," she said. But here's the good news. That money is not taxable and doesn't count toward any already in-place benefits.

Volunteers also get a per diem of $12 per meal, eaten during their volunteer time, preferably with a senior client. If a senior volunteer eats one meal every day, for 52 weeks, it adds an additional income of $2,120.

"Add this all together, you could conceivably bring home an extra $5,000 to $6,000 depending on the number of meals you claim," LaFollette said. "Add to that, mileage reimbursement and vacation, sick, holiday and bereavement paid time and it is all non-reportable income."

The income is not taxed and does not count against any other housing, food stamps or other benefits the volunteer may be receiving.

At a recent training session, senior volunteers were eager to begin sharing their time with other seniors. None of them wanted to be identified in this report, however.

"I needed to volunteer so I can get out of the house and stop being a homebody," said one volunteer. "Instead of waiting, I said, 'I'm going right now, today.' And here I am."

A volunteer contacted later praised the program.

"I've only been doing it for a few weeks but it's been really nice helping the elders," said Elizabeth Smith. "I enjoy sitting and eating with them and sharing stories. It's good for them and it's good for me."

She decided to sign up as a volunteer after reading about the program in a senior newsletter. 

"It's fairly new, but I think it's a great program for just about everybody," she said.

The program pays the fees for senior volunteers to get a physical, a background check, to take the AARP Safe Driver course, to get a food handlers card and to become certified in First Aid/CPR.

"Seniors live longer when they volunteer," said LaFollette. "They are healthier. They wake up with a purpose, which is a good thing."

"The seniors you are serving wake up with a purpose too," she told the trainees.

These senior volunteers will do everything from reading aloud to cooking meals, to just carrying on casual conversation or helping put together puzzles. Sometimes they'll drive the seniors to appointments or grocery shopping. They can also give adult caregivers a much needed break.

Meanwhile, the volunteers regularly attend workshops to learn about senior issues and ways to handle situations that may arise.

"Always be respectful to people you are working with," said LaFollette. "The tone of your voice means a lot. And be on time. I can't impress upon you how important this is when an elderly person is expecting you. Call if you're going to be late, so they won't be panicky."

LaFollette encourages more volunteers to sign up. She'd love to welcome volunteers who are veterans, and match them to senior citizens who are also veterans. She also hopes more men will join the program.

For more information or to sign up as a volunteer, call 907-452-1735.


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