Attached to a respirator and beset by heart problems, Richard Aros, 73, lives alone in his townhouse in the southern part of Tucson.
But Aros is far from forlorn in his Blanche Johnson Courtyards home – a senior center complex on East 36th Street. On a recent Tuesday, Héctor Mendoza, a gentleman in his 60s who with his vivacious eyes and coiffed hair looks like he could have been a matinee idol, is visiting.
In fact, Mendoza, who is from Sonora, Mexico, often takes Aros on strolls, visits to the doctor and even is his gym buddy. Mendoza belongs to Senior Companions, a program administered by Our Family, a nonprofit local organization dedicated to working with seniors.
“Héctor is very kind,” said Aros, smiling from his living room fabric recliner sofa, watching a show on a 50-inch LCD screen TV, where atop the set a black-and-white framed photo of his deceased wife looks back at him. “He brings me a lot of joy.”
Mendoza belongs to a small but well-organized strike force of 43 volunteers who go all over town helping seniors’ fight loneliness, take their medications or simply be their friends. Some of the elders they assist are too fragile to help themselves, have been incapacitated or suffer from chronic maladies.
The Senior Companions program goes back to the ’70s, when President Richard Nixon supported the project after seeing that more and more elders had no one to take care of them and often ended up in nursing homes.
In Tucson, the program, which receives federal funds, was introduced 12 years ago via Our Family, a nonprofit agency located at 3830 East Bellevue. Senior companions are recruited from the area, said Frances Coleman, the director of the Senior Companions program.
Reflecting the local population and hoping – and often accomplishing – a connection between seniors and the companions, 25 of the companions are bilingual Spanish speakers, Coleman said. Others are native English speakers or Native Americans.
Senior companions work an average of 25 hours per week and get a tax-free stipend of $2.65 per hour, Coleman said.
Caught in the vortex of modern life, overworked and with little time to take care of their own children, most of the children or relatives are unable to take care of their elders, Coleman said. This is where the senior companions’ work turns out to be invaluable, she added.
“This permits the senior to stay at home and never have to end up in a nursing home. A lot of people end up there because there is no one to take care of them, or family members are stressed out and can’t go on,” said Coleman, who has worked taking care of elders for more than 30 years.
Coleman cited a study by Brigham Young University and another similar study done in Great Britain that concluded that loneliness, especially among seniors, is even more damaging to one’s health than smoking 15 cigarettes per day or being obese and not getting exercise.
In come the senior companions.
Senior companions must be over 55 years old, meet low-income requirements, be willing to work more than 20 hours per week and have a desire to make a difference in others’ lives.
Companions like Mendoza are culled from all walks of like. He was a bolero guitarist who says that in addition to making a change in people’s lives, the gig has been good to him as well.
Irma López, 75, a former carpenter from Nogales, Sonora, who now lives in Tucson, drives female seniors in her Ford Focus to the pharmacy or to the movies. Ten years ago, López herself suffered from depression, but found solace as a senior companion.
“Being a senior companion also helped me, too,” she said.
For more information on the senior companion program, call (520) 323-1708, ext. 240.