LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Isolation is an issue for many seniors, especially in rural places. It can lead to loneliness, which many experts consider a serious public health issue. As Maine Public Radio's Patty Wight reports, for decades, a federal program has addressed the problem the old-fashioned way - sending visitors door to door.
PATTY WIGHT, BYLINE: Most days of the week, you can find Kitty Gee making house calls among the mountains of western Maine.
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)
KITTY GEE: Hello.
WIGHT: Gee is a senior companion. It's a federal grant program that operates in nearly every state. The idea is simple - connect isolated seniors to a friendly visitor every week. On this day, Gee visits Wanetta Nurse.
GEE: How's my best girl today? You're doing good, eh? Looking pretty as always.
WANETTA NURSE: Good to see you, Kitty.
WIGHT: Gee is a spry 87. Nurse is only 74, but she has health issues that make it hard for her to walk or even to pursue former hobbies, like knitting and sewing.
NURSE: When Kitty showed up, that was like, oh, yay.
WIGHT: During the visits, Gee keeps the conversation upbeat - chatting about family, the old days and men.
GEE: I've been trying to find a dancing partner. They're hard to find because, you know, people our age, they're not - they don't want to do much, you know? And you and I, we're ready to roll. We want to get moving.
WIGHT: Gee became a senior companion nearly five years ago after her husband died. She was at loose ends, she says, and needed something to do.
GEE: So I said this will get me out among people. I'll have someone to talk to. And maybe I'll do some good.
WIGHT: She visits seven clients each week and receives a federal stipend - $2.65 an hour. Being a companion, Gee says, gives her a purpose. And Nurse says the visits give her something to look forward to.
NURSE: I mean, sometimes, she's laughing so hard. You know, it's just so nice to see someone laughing. And then to be included in that, too, means a lot.
KERRY FARIA: These programs, I think, are essential for our aging populations in our state.
WIGHT: Kerry Faria is with the local nonprofit SeniorsPlus, which partners with the University of Maine to implement the senior companion program.
FARIA: Many times, people will end up isolating themselves because their friends are dying around them. Their family - maybe their siblings are - have died off. I mean, they may be the only one left out of their generation. So they just find themselves kind of alone.
WIGHT: Around 600 seniors receive the service in Maine. But there's a waitlist of more than 300. The demand is likely to increase as the population ages. More companions are also needed, says Faria, especially men, though there are a few.
BUD HOUGHTON: I'm Bud Houghton. I am 66 years old.
WIGHT: Houghton is a former logger. After he retired, he jumped at the chance to become a senior companion.
HOUGHTON: They need that friendship. They need that companionship. You are their ticket to the outside world.
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)
WIGHT: Today, he's visiting 61-year-old Bill Gates.
HOUGHTON: You want to go for a ride?
BILL GATES: Yeah.
HOUGHTON: All right. I'll get the car backed up then.
WIGHT: Gates has dementia. Houghton likes to take him to scenic outlooks. The visit is as much to provide companionship as it is to give Gates' wife some respite.
WIGHT: Gates hums as they wind along the roads of western Maine. Being a companion, Houghton says, isn't always easy. He's witnessed clients deteriorate. Some have passed away. But these relationships, he says, are deeper than his other friendships.
HOUGHTON: It changes you. You end up doing things for other people. It's not you that's important. It's their well-being that's important.
WIGHT: And it's the simple things, Houghton says, like taking someone for a picnic lunch or a ride in the car that make a difference.
HOUGHTON: That's "Silent Night," isn't it?
GATES: I'm not trying put the...
HOUGHTON: Love that song.
GATES: Yeah - always trying to keep me (ph) away from it.
WIGHT: For NPR News, I'm Patty Wight.
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