Companion program offers support, company and freedom
OXFORD — Dee Farr has battled disabilities all her life and never felt disabled.
The 55-year-old Oxford resident has lived with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis since she was 8 years old and, she said, always had mobility issues.
In her teens, she began to live with retinitis pigmentosa — inherited diseases causing retinal degeneration — which gradually causes a loss of peripheral vision.
None of this slowed her down as she adapted.
A lab tech at Stephens Memorial Hospital until her arthritis forced her retirement, Farr has undergone more than a dozen surgeries, including the unfusing of her spine, three hip replacements, knee replacements and spinal rods.
Finally, in 2007, she was dealt a blow that was almost too much. The state Department of Motor Vehicles refused to renew her license because she had lost too much of her field of vision, she said.
The state requires a binocular visual field of 150 degrees or better. People have a maximum horizontal field of view of about 200 degrees with two eyes. About 120 degrees make up the binocular field of view. Farr’s was 24 degrees.
She likens the loss to tunnel vision in that the circle of vision she can see is gradually but continuously shrinking.
“I can only see your nose and mouth,” she said, “and, ultimately, I could go blind.”
Although she has a minimal field of vision, what she can see is very clear, she said.
The loss of her license “was the most difficult thing I’ve had happen,” Farr said.
Always fiercely independent, she loved cooking and although her husband, Kevin, handled most of the housework and maintenance of their property, she reigned in the kitchen.
“I was a cook who would run to the store for ingredients,” she said. She admitted she has never been much of a planner.
Suddenly, she was dependent on her husband to take her to the store.
“We found it difficult to find a pattern for buying groceries,” she said.
As for many, grocery shopping was not just a necessity but a social experience as well, running into friends and acquaintances, stopping to chat. This didn’t work when someone was waiting for her.
“Having your spouse sitting in the car added pressure … you can’t stop and talk with folks.”
“I was discouraged and slightly depressed,” she said. “I had given up cooking because we couldn’t get on a regular schedule and I no longer had a passion for cooking.”
She did still cook but the meals became very simple.
One day, Farr met Katey Coffin, 65, of Norway and her life changed once again.
“One day, about a year ago, Katey was bringing a client to visit me to get her out of the house. We visited several times,” Farr said
Coffin is a senior companion with the University of Maine Center on Aging Senior Companion program. Coffin urged her to consider the program. Farr didn’t think she was old enough but, in fact, she did qualify because she was considered homebound.
So she and Coffin began to get to know each other and ultimately formed a friendship as well as a working relationship.
Thanks to Coffin, Farr can now get to the grocery store and take her time shopping and chatting. Or perhaps they will catch a movie.
“So Katey says, ‘What are we doing today?’ and I’ll say, ‘Hannford and out to lunch!'” Farr said.
Farr said grocery shopping is her biggest need and Coffin has enabled her to go back to cooking which is “what I enjoy.”
“Dee is one of six clients I have,” Coffin said. “Each of my clients has very different circumstances.”
Some may have no family around and are hungry for companionship, some may have family they are estranged from, some may simply need a change of scene and a friendly face.
“One of my clients used to be an extrovert and ended up in a nursing home and needed companionship,” Coffin said.
Coffin used to do home care, she said, but got injured on the job and had to give it up.
“I like people and like to do things with people. It is a win-win,” she said, “good for both of us.”
And that is crux of what the program is all about.
It matches seniors with seniors, for the most part — and both benefit.
According to its brochures, “homebound elders are able to stay in their homes longer thanks to regular visits from Senior Companions — dedicated, active individuals age 55 and older.”
The point of the age requirement, Coffin said, is so the companions can relate to the clients.
However, the program is not open to just older clients. It is open to anyone over the age of 18 who is chronically ill, homebound or isolated and needs help “with the activities of daily living.”
Anna Saar, 67, of Turner, program coordinator for Oxford, Franklin and Androscoggin counties, said the program partners with SeniorsPlus, Catholic Charities’ Seek Elderly And Renew Courage and Hope (SEARCH) program and Clover Health Care in Auburn.
Each of those agencies helps support the program and has a waiting list of clients. Saar coordinates a list and oversees the companions, managing about 12 directly.
“We provide monthly trainings so our companions can help clients help themselves,” she said. Training can include such topics as fraud/scams, nutrition, legal services available, elder abuse, vision and hearing resources and dementia.
“We assign companions to different agencies and then the agency assigns a client to the companion,” she said. “We all work as a team.”
Saar said she tries to find companions in each town where there are clients to keep the travel costs down. The program reimburses companions for mileage to and from a client’s home. Any driving the companion does with the companion, the client reimburses for gas.
She does this all in a 15-hour workweek.
Saar has 22 companions — six in Oxford County, two in Franklin and 14 in Androscoggin. They serve 101 clients. Of those clients, 25 are men and 76 are women.
She has two male companions in Oxford County and two in Androscoggin County. She needs more, she said.
Saar notes most of her companions are either low-income or fixed-income and if so, they will receive a stipend for their time as well as mileage.
Each companion works about 15 to 20 hours a week with four to six clients. They might simply offer friendship or they might go to a movie, the grocery store, the library or a community meal — or maybe just a drive.
“But we are not a transportation service,” Saar said. “We are more than that, we are companions.”
Companions need to be available during the day, any day of the week, have a valid driver’s license, vehicle insurance, a safe driving record, valid vehicle inspection and registration and undergo a criminal background check. They will have an orientation and shadowing before receiving clients.
“I love the companions, they are so compassionate … beyond belief — and they go out of their way,” Saar said. “I know they are doing more hours and more miles than they are paid for and I know if a client calls in the middle of the night because they are ill, the companions would take them to the ER … I know because they have done that.”
Katey and Dee
Farr is living a very active life again. She enjoys crafts, does beadwork, knits, reads, watches TV and spins wool from her two angora goats.
“I have a wonderful community,” she said. She takes part in church activities and there is always someone who will give her a ride to those. “This community has always supported me in many ways.”
She’s learning to use a white cane so if she loses her sight, she will be ready. She’s pragmatic about what she calls her limitations.
“I consider this (white cane) a tool,” she said. “Just like my regular cane. Just tools for living.”
When they get to the grocery store, Coffin said, “I disappear. Dee wants to be independent.”
“Having someone at my side is dangerous,” Farr said, laughing. “I have taken out a few stock boys and a wet floor sign.”
At home, Farr’s husband, who is an electrician and carpenter, raises bees, maintains a large vegetable garden and cares for Dee’s goats. The couple’s two dogs — Droopy, a basset hound and Simeon, a beagle — don’t trip her up.
“We’ve learned (to navigate each other) and I hear them,” she said.
Droopy has only one eye.
Coffin, a divorced mother of two grown children and grandmother of three, said, “I benefit as much as my clients.”
Farr added, “She sure made a difference in my life!”