Elders befriend elders in companion program

Ed Berk is a friend to people. Not just on Capitol Hill, where he has lived for the past nine years, but all over town, thanks to the Senior Companion Volunteer program.

The program, sponsored locally by Volunteers of America of Western Washington, schedules volunteers to provide special assistance to elderly persons and adults more than 18 years old who have special physical, mental or emotional needs.

Volunteers have between two and five clients who they visit on a regular schedule, usually working in the program 20 hours a week. Volunteers must be more than 60 years old, in good enough health to help the clients and low-income.

"One of the main things they provide is socialization for people who are alone," explained Cristina Vasconcelos, director of the program. She said the volunteers will typically read to the clients, drive them to appointments, go grocery shopping or do social things, like going to a ball game.

"I take great pleasure in seeing these people," Berk said. "I think the 'golden years' are easier for couples. It's hard if you are single."

Berk spent years in the business world working for airlines, as an insurance man and a fish broker. After he retired he went to school to become a nursing assistant.

"I guess I've always been around people," Berk said. "I can tell from the first meeting with a client if it's going to work ort not." The idea is to establish a rapport and become friends. Berk said that sometimes an elderly person is talked into the program by one of their children who decide it is just what they need.

"That doesn't work. We can only serve the client if the client wants us to see them," Berk said.

The Senior Companion Volunteer Program is nationwide, but the local sponsors in cities and regions vary from area to area. It is funded by a federal grant that must be matched by community donations. It is free to the client.

Anyone more than 60 years old is eligible for the program, as are people less than 60 who have physical handicaps. That includes AIDS and advanced cancer patients. Donations are always welcome, but there is no requirement to pay any fee.

"It can make a big difference, adding enrichment and quality to their lives," Berk said. "I have one client, he's 98 years old, and he's full of life. He has a great attitude."

Berk visits his clients once a week for two or three hours at a regularly scheduled time. He says they may play cards, talk sports, some people even want to show the slides they have taken over the years.

"I can tell when somebody enjoys having me there and conversely I enjoy being with them," Berk said. You know he means it.

"I sort of see their eyes brighten up when I come in," Berk said, relishing the memory. "We aren't care givers. As the name says, we're companions. I like to see them as much as they like to see me."

"Right now we are looking for two to four more volunteers for the program," Vasconcelos said. She said some of the volunteers have been companions since the beginning in 1986, and they are getting pretty old themselves.

Berk is in his third year as a volunteer and will turn 70 on July 17.

"It's kind of hard for me to believe," he said of his age. "I don't feel like an old man, but I am an old man. Where did all the years go?"

Being a Senior Companion Volunteer keeps him active and gets him out of his apartment, he said.

"I know people who do nothing but watch television all day long," Berk said. "I think the worst thing I could have done is stop working. It's a difficult time of life, you need to do something."

There is a monthly service meeting and luncheon for the volunteers.

"I look forward to that," Berk said. After the meeting they rent a bus and go somewhere. Volunteers can bring along a client if they wish.

"We're looking for clients too," said Vasconcelos. "The program fills a tremendous need in the community, coordinating with a network of social service and health care agencies in King County to provide about 4,000 hours per month of volunteer in-home assistance to senior and adults with special needs and disabilities. Some of the special areas we are also involved with are chronic illness, cancer, Alzheimer's, stroke, demntia, HIV and AIDS."

"It's not for everyone," Berk said. "You have to want to really, really feel your time is to enrich someone's life, and your own. It benefits not only the client but the volunteer."

To inquire about becoming a client, call the Senior Companion Program at 329-0515.

To become a volunteer, call the same number. The process includes a screening through references, an application and an interview. Applicants must be 60 or older, low-income and in good enough health to help someone. There are currently between 55 and 60 volunteers.

Freelance writer Korte Brueckmann lives on Capitol Hill and can be reached at editor@ capitolhilltimes.com.

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