More than 34 million family members and friends in the United States provide care to older adults, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP. Caregiving covers a wide gamut of responsibility, though. It can range from simply touching base once a week to ensure loved ones have their groceries or are keeping doctor appointments and right through to providing 24-hour-a-day physical and emotional support.
But no matter what is involved, caregiving can be a tough job, especially when a person does it alone. Getting help often involves hiring a home health care aide who can do tasks like bathing, toileting and dressing.
Not all caregivers need someone to provide that level of care, though. Some may just need a helper to give them a little time to themselves or to run errands and do tasks that wouldn’t otherwise get done. For these situations, the solution may be to hire a companion, which is what Leslie Koc, a retirement coach in Bend, Ore., did for her husband, Tom.
“I made it very specific, the activities that Tom enjoys doing. I didn’t want to hire someone to just sit and watch television with him.”
Tom, who has Alzheimer’s disease, doesn’t require hands-on physical care yet. But he had reached a point where he couldn’t be left alone. It was through Koc’s support groups that she learned about the options available to her.
“I didn’t know there was such a thing as companion care,” she says. “Tom needs a companion, someone to brighten his day, to do things he would enjoy — things that he enjoys that I don’t.”
A few months ago, Koc worked with an agency to find someone who would fit well with Tom.
Enjoyable and Enriching Time
“His companion comes just three times a week for an hour,” she says, explaining that other caregivers advised her to start the process slowly. She hopes to gradually increase the companion’s time soon, either for longer periods each time or more frequently.
Tom’s companion keeps him busy. They go for walks and play games. “I made it very specific, the activities that Tom enjoys doing. I didn’t want to hire someone to just sit and watch television with him,” Koc says. “I’m not great at ping pong and I don’t necessarily enjoy playing pool, but he does. This has been great for him. I feel as though I’m providing enriching time for Tom, not a babysitter.”
Companions come from all walks of life. Some are younger and may work as a part-time companion while they’re in school; for others, it’s a full-time job.
A Companion’s Perspective
For Netta Hawkins, who lives in Huber Heights, Ohio, being a companion to an older adult provides a sense of purpose in her retirement life.
“I needed something to do with my spare time,” Hawkins says. “There was a void in my life. My mom was gone and I just like caring for people. I always have.”
After working through an agency for a while, Hawkins left to work exclusively with one client, an 84-year-old woman.
“She had family in the area, but they all worked,” Hawkins says. “She had multiple doctor appointments she had to get to. She didn’t have dementia of any kind — her mind was really sharp. She was just frail. I would fix lunch for her. She did her own laundry, but I would make sure she did it, and got it put away right and all kinds of different things. I enjoyed it.”
Hawkins continued to work with her client until she died at age 89. “I treated her like my mom,” Hawkins says. “Her breast cancer came back, but there wasn’t anything they could do for her. We just went on with life. I took her to the senior center to play bingo once a week, to doctor appointments.”
A Win-Win for Older Adults and Companions
Lynda Pickett, assistant director of the in-home support program and volunteer services at the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging (part of the federal Corporation for National and Community Service), believes the organization’s Senior Companions program provides significant benefits for all involved.
In this national program, older volunteers who want to give their time receive a small stipend to act as companions. They are matched with people who need them.
“It’s a wonderful program because it helps to provide company and companionship [for both clients and companions],” Pickett says. “And it encourages other seniors to be involved in activities. We know that being lonely and isolated can just bring on so many other problems.”
One advantage of the Senior Companions program, Pickett says, is that it involves older adults in helping other older adults.
“Often when you have someone visiting with you, spending time with you, you want someone who is compatible, understands your needs, is more of your era and generation,” she says.
Finding a Companion for Your Loved One
The idea of hiring a companion can be intimidating. After all, you are bringing a stranger into your loved one’s home or your home. Services like the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging and private agencies can help navigate some of the issues.
These organizations are insured and vet their workers and volunteers. Often, scheduling and payments are completed through the agencies, and coordinators try to ensure a safe, appropriate match between client and companion.
Agencies usually require a home assessment. “We’ll go out to the consumer’s home just to eyeball and get a sense of the safety, what the environment looks like, whether or not they have animals,” Pickett says. “The companion is going to be spending a fair amount of time there, and so we want to ensure that it’s comfortable.”
So, what about cost? Hourly costs vary across the country, but, generally, they range from about $13 to $17 per hour, according to ElderCare.com. Hiring through an agency is more expensive than hiring a companion privately, but agencies have the employer responsibilities, taking care of insurance, security checks, salaries, taxes and more.
In most cases, health insurers will not pay for companion care — and that’s true for Medicare. However, it’s always a good idea to double check with your insurance provider. A long-term care insurance policy may offer some assistance.
You Don’t Have to Go It Alone
Hiring a companion may seem like a luxury, and you may feel you should be able to manage all of the caregiving yourself. But Koc says that it shouldn’t be seen this way. She had to come to terms herself that Tom needed a companion and that hiring one would benefit Tom and her.
“It was an admission for me that Tom was at a point where he needed a companion that I could not provide,” she says. “I could not do that, all of that.”
Ultimately, it was the right decision for both Koc and her husband. Having a companion has allowed Koc to go out for appointments and to spend some time on her own, knowing Tom has company.
If you’re thinking of hiring a companion, here are some considerations:
- What do you want the companion to do?
- How frequently, and for what length of time, do you need the companion?
- Does the age and sex of the companion matter? Will your loved one respond better to a man or woman; to someone close to his or her age?
- Does the companion need a driver’s license to drive your loved one around?
- Do you want to use an agency or hire privately?
- What can you afford?
Next Avenue Editors Also Recommend:
- The Volunteering That Makes People 55+ Healthier
- Ways to Vet a Caregiver or Caregiving Agency
- What Can You Do to Ease a Caregiver’s Burden?
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