Polara Health’s Senior Peer program seeks volunteer companions

By Hilary Dartt

Today’s seniors are those who helped create the United States as we know it today. They worked hard through the Depression and World War II. In the quad-city area, 42 percent of residents are older than 65. Many of them are isolated and homebound and have limited social interaction.

Polara Health’s Senior Peer Program aims to change that.

“There’s quite a bit of research now that seniors who live alone are isolated from communities and have a higher incidence of dementia, mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, and a shorter life span,” said Melanie Jacobson, program manager.

The Senior Peer Program addresses those risk factors in two ways. First, it pairs volunteer companions with seniors referred by their family members, healthcare providers, or people from other community agencies. Second, it offers several volunteer-run support groups.

Although Polara Health paused the program during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Melanie took the helm this past spring and is now on a mission to build it back up.

“We lost 80 percent of our [companion] volunteers,” she said during a recent interview. “We had 75, and now we have twelve.”

“Our volunteers reignite [seniors’] interest in being part of the community.”

They “meet at least once a week with their isolated friend and go out to dinner, movies, plays, anything socially oriented. It’s just to get out of the house,” she said.

“And have that connection,” added Deanna Eder, Polara Health’s Director Marketing and Communications.

Melanie explained that the reason the Senior Peer Program matches seniors with seniors is to bring together people with shared life experiences; those who grew up about the same time, and have commonalities such as careers, retirement, and grown children.

Volunteers and the seniors with whom they connect often develop long-term friendships, Melanie said. Some of those relationships have been going on for more than 10 years.

The Senior Peer Program accepts volunteers from any walk of life and is always looking for men to match with men Polara screens and trains volunteers. They meet once a month to share stories, ideas, and support. Volunteers are also reimbursed for their mileage at the current IRS rate of 62 cents per mile.

Making Connections

New to town several years ago, Connie Maudlin began to volunteer for Polara’s Senior Peer Program to make friends. She was “matched” with a 90-year-old woman who had lost her spouse and dog and had no children or friends

“We had so many wonderful conversations about her life,” Connie said.

Her senior companion was losing her independence, and the two of them talked about assisted living … naturally, the woman didn’t want to even think about leaving her house. Eventually, though, she had to, and Connie helped her make the fast transition her friend’s situation required.

Once she moved, she experienced “major depression,” and Connie continued daily visits until she was feeling better.

“Even though she was a participant in Senior Peer,” Connie said, “this woman became a sister to me. She was that friend I did not know I needed to have in my life. What a blessing, I am sure, for both of us.”

Pat Clingman facilitates the Polara Health Blind/Low Vision Support Group. She knows firsthand how isolating blindness is … and how fulfilling it is to create connections.

A decade ago, Pat was a member of the group when its facilitator told her she was going to have to give up the group and suggested perhaps Pat could run it.

“What’s involved?” Pat wanted to know, and the woman responded, “Just keep the conversation going.”

Since then, the group has evolved, Pat said. “I’m very blessed to be able to facilitate the group. I get more than I give. It’s a wonderful group of folks doing our best to get through, day by day. We laugh and joke, and we also have speakers who come to talk about issues, new technology, new ways to do things, new products. We all learn from each other.”

She added that often people share helpful tips without even realizing how helpful they are.

Pat lost her vision to macular degeneration when she was in her 60s, and said it was “very isolating.”

The Blind/Low-Vision Support Group gives her more than just twice-monthly conversation: “You feel a kinship with the people. They’re my family. I don’t have any family—it’s my group.”

To learn more about Polara Health’s Senior Peer Program (for companionship or support groups), visit https://www.polarahealth.com/senior-peer-program.html or contact Melanie at 928.445.5211, extension 2035.

Polara Health Senior Peer Program Support Groups and Classes

Support groups and classes meet weekly or bi-weekly. Pre-registration is required; call 928.445.5211, ext. 2035 to register.

  • Women of Wisdom: Meet with women for friendship and shared life experiences.
  • Senior Men’s Group: Meet with like-minded men for friendship and shared life experiences. 
  • Blind/Low Vision Support Group: A safe and confidential place to share experiences living with low vision, discuss vision aids that may help others, and discover how to navigate life with confidence and acceptance.
  • Blind/Low Vision Caregiver Support Group: Held at the same time, but separately, as the BLV Support Group, for those caring for vision-impaired loved ones. Learn strategies for the care of a loved one and for better taking care of yourself.
  • Mindfulness Meditation Class: Learn a secular practice to pay attention to current experiences and accept them without judgment. Studies suggest that mindfulness is beneficial to our psychological and physical well-being.

For Pat Clingman, joining and facilitating Polara Health Senior Peer Program’s Blind/Low-Vision Support Group was, and continues to be, a blessing.

Her guide dog, Maracca, is even more of a blessing: “I’ll never be lonely again for the rest of my life,” Pat said. “She’s the light of my life.”

In addition to providing guidance and companionship, Maracca has given Pat an appreciation for true service dogs who are well-trained and smart (Maracca guides Pat around all different kinds of obstacles, such as water bowls on the sidewalk or low-hanging tree branches).

Although she understands how tempting it can be to pet a beautiful dog, Pat wanted to remind people that when a service dog is working (signified by the fact that it’s wearing a vest), a person should never pet it.

“Just like humans, a dog can fall off the wagon and forget what it’s doing,” Pat said.

Pat is the president of the local chapter of Guide Dogs for the Blind Alumni; anyone with a guide dog is welcome to attend meetings and events. She’s planning a spring meeting; call her at 928.713.5520 to learn more.