Seniors find companionship through Kenaitze program

Nancy Nelson (left) and Laura Hobson (right) browse in a local antiques store. The two spend several hours together each week as part of the Kenaitze Senior Companion Program. (Photo courtesy of Kenaitze Indian Tribe)
Nancy Nelson (left) and Laura Hobson (right) browse in a local antiques store. The two spend several hours together each week as part of the Kenaitze Senior Companion Program. (Photo courtesy of Kenaitze Indian Tribe)

The Kenaitze Indian Tribe is wrapping up the first year of its new Senior Companion Program. The program pairs volunteers with fellow seniors who live on the Central Kenai Peninsula.

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Volunteers provide help with day-to-day tasks, like grocery shopping and budgeting. Those involved in the program, however, say the companionship is just as important.

Sticking to a grocery budget can be tough. According to Kenai resident Rose Guilbeau, having a system is a good place to start.

“First I have to write a list down of what we need at home: eggs, milk, juice, salami,” Gilbeau explained.

Then she adds up the prices on a calculator, being careful to stay under budget. On her last trip to Walmart, Guilbeau said, she was just a few pennies from her budget.

Guilbeau is part of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s Senior Companion program. The program pairs volunteers with seniors who have physical, social or cognitive disabilities. Volunteers provide help with day-to-day tasks, allowing seniors to continue living independently.

Laura Hobson, who is Athabascan, works with Guilbeau as her senior companion. She’s the one who taught her how to budget.

“I was so proud of her,” Hobson said. “She got it all right, right down to the penny.”

Hobson received 40 hours of training before she was able to work as a Kenaitze Senior Companion. As part of the training, she learned about a range of topics related to senior care, from fall prevention to effective communication.

The program is funded through a three-year grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Heather Daniels is the Senior Companion program coordinator. One of their main goals, she explained, is connecting the elderly with important resources.

“One of our biggest challenges in Alaska is transportation and of course, our geography can isolate us,” Daniels said. “Alaska is such a wide expanse and that can isolate our elders from getting those community resources.”

Providing transportation is just one piece of the program, however. Daniels said building relationships is just as important.

“They’re gaining a friend, they’re gaining the companionship that they may or not have in their lives,” Daniels explained. “They may or not have direct family, so that companionship through the volunteer is so valuable.”

Nancy Nelson is another recipient in the Senior Companion Program who works with Hobson. Nelson, who is Chupik, lives in Soldotna. Once a week, she spends a few hours shopping with Hobson.

The two didn’t know each other before joining the program and Nelson says she was a little nervous.

“The first day was kind of awkward,” Nelson said. “But by the end of the time, I was kind of hopeful. Then the second time we got together, I felt a whole lot more comfortable after that.”

On a blustery December afternoon, the pair head to a local junk shop in Kenai. They carefully comb through room after room, hunting for deals.

Hobson, who collects pigs, spies something special on a high shelf.

It’s a cookie jar shaped like a pig in a chef’s uniform. But Nelson isn’t so sure about the quality. She taps her nails against the ceramic.

“It’s so light,” Nelson said. “I wonder how fragile it is.”

After some debate, the pair decide the cookie jar would make a good addition to Hobson’s pig collection.

Nelson buys a pack of playing cards for a dollar. She doesn’t usually buy much on these outings, but spending time with Hobson is one of the highlights of her week.

“It brightens my week up and it relaxes me,” Nelson said. “It helps me to forget about the stress that I had survived during that week. It does a whole lot better than any kind of artificial medication would do.”

The Kenaitze Senior Companion program is open to anyone over age 55, not just Alaska Natives. They currently have just a handful of participants, but they’re hoping to grow next year.

Shahla Farzan is a reporter with KBBI - Homer.

Shahla first caught the radio bug as a world music host for WMHC, the oldest college radio station operated exclusively by women. Before coming to KBBI, she worked at Capital Public Radio in Sacramento and as a science writer for the California Environmental Legacy Project. She is currently completing her Ph.D in ecology at the University of California-Davis, where she studies native bees.

When she's not producing audio stories, you can find Shahla beachcombing or buried in a good book.

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