The population of senior citizens in Alaska is growing faster than in any other state, and there aren’t anywhere near enough facilities here to care for them when they’ll need it. So a Fairbanks-based program is helping seniors help themselves, to enable them to remain independent and living at home as long as possible. The organization’s program, like the senior population itself, is expanding.
There comes a time when just about all of us will need help with the simplest of daily chores, like cooking and washing. And when that time comes for senior citizens in Fairbanks, Delta Junction and now Tok, they won’t have to struggle or resign themselves to checking in at the local old-folks home. They can just sign up for the Senior Companions program.
“My Senior Companion steps in, and they can now assist that individual, so that they can remain living in their own home for as long as possible,” says Laurie Lizotte, who runs the federally funded program out of the Fairbanks Senior Center. She says it’s urgently needed.
“By the year 2020,” she said, “19,000 seniors in our community alone. And we only have like 260 beds (in) Pioneer Home and assisted living homes.”
Lizotte says it’s the same situation statewide.
“Alaska has the fastest-growing senior population in the entire country,” she said.
That’s because many of the people who came to the state in territorial days or early-on after statehood stuck around,” she said. And despite the independent spirit that brought them here, many of those old-timers now increasingly need help.
“When you look at those statistics, and you realize how fast our aging population is growing – what are we going to do, to help them as they age?” Lizotte said. “That’s where we step in.”
Senior companions like Kathleen Parsley literally do step in – into the houses of people who are signed-up for the program.
“They need more help,” Parsely said. “Some of them can’t let go of the walker to get clothes out of the dryer – how would they do that, without likely falling and hurting themselves.”
Parsley has five clients around Fairbanks who she helps do both household chores and errands around town. She says many seniors don’t drive and badly need transportation.
“A lot of people just struggle with that,” she said. “They have to go around and knock on doors and ask ‘Could you take me to the doctor on Friday?’ ”
Parsley is herself a senior citizen. So she understands that sometimes her clients just need companionship, both around the house – and to get out of the house.
“The joy of this program is that I can go to the movies, and take them with me,” she said. “We go out and eat a lot.”
Besides the personal gratification she gets from helping people, Parsley says the part-time job keeps her active. And the $2.65-per-hour stipend the program pays improves her quality of life by boosting her fixed income.
“It works great for me,” she said. “It’s just enough extra income to add to my Social Security income.”
Lizotte says in addition to the stipend, companions are paid mileage and expenses. And the income they earn from the job is not federally taxed. But she says the pay obviously isn’t intended to be the big draw for people interested in becoming a Senior Companion.
“This is truly not about the money,” she said. “Yes, we get to put a little money in your pocket, but this is about generosity. It’s about compassion. It’s about caring.”
Lizotte says she’s recruiting more companions, to meet the growing need in Fairbanks and outlying areas. There are 28 companions now, including seven in Delta and two in Tok.
She says anyone interested in the program must be at least 55 years old and be able to pass a background check. And she urges anyone who meets those and other requirements, especially the compassionate and caring prerequisites, to contact her at the Senior Center, at (907) 452-2551.