Moments after 74-year-old Lillie Winsley’s cue is lifted from the table, her companion, Darlene, 93, shuffles around the pool table to take her turn, sending multicolored balls flying across the green felt.
The duo plays about four games every week at Flagstaff Senior Meadows and have become known as the “pool sharks” to residents there. Their partnership extends beyond shooting pool, though.
Lillie is a Senior Companion, a volunteer with the Senior Corps Program at Northern Arizona University’s Civic Service Institute, who is paired with homebound seniors like Darlene to allow them to continue living on their own. She has been volunteering in this way for seven years.
This program, with about 100 volunteers statewide, is one of three offered by Senior Corps, alongside the Foster Grandparent Program for in-school mentorships and Retired Senior Volunteer Program for meeting other community needs. Many volunteers participate in several of these programs at once.
Senior Companions has been operating out of Flagstaff since 1985, said Senior Corps Project Director Erin Kruse. There are currently about eight companions locally. Kruse hopes to recruit about 10 more to address local needs.
“It’s a win-win-win. Volunteers feel great because they are helping people, they are building connections and the clients' lives are improved significantly at a time in their lives when they may not have anybody,” Kruse said.
Senior Companions are 55 years and older and work with their clients for about 10 hours a week. They are trained in topics like home visits and interacting with seniors who have disabilities before they are sent out on their own. Depending on hours served, volunteers can receive a tax-free hourly stipend and mileage reimbursement.
Although companions often help drive clients to medical appointments and grocery stores, their more important role is addressing social isolation.
Clients like Darlene, who have family in town to assist with transportation, spend time doing other activities with their companions. Every week before their pool games, Lillie takes Darlene out for a shopping trip and ice cream.
Darlene moved to Flagstaff from Iowa after her husband died and said she misses the relationships she had there.
“I had one neighbor where we would have coffee every morning or every afternoon just to be doing something,” Darlene said.
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Lillie agreed that people don’t talk much anymore, especially with added distractions like cellphones.
“When my kids were growing up, neighbors used to talk -- stand in the yard, drink coffee and talk -- but not anymore,” Lillie said. “Everybody is just doing their own thing now and a lot of the older people like myself and [Darlene], we miss that a lot.”
In response, she and her two clients spend most of their time together talking. Lillie said she learns a lot from these conversations (another client in her 90s “would always keep me in line,” Lillie explained with a laugh).
In addition to sharing stories, other companions like Martha Murphy, 73, are able to share hobbies with their clients.
Martha still meets with one of her former clients, now a friend, to make crafts or bake seasonal cookies.
“You establish relationships with people that you otherwise would never have met,” Martha said, referring both to her clients and to her fellow Senior Corps volunteers, who she has met with monthly for ongoing trainings since she began volunteering four years ago. “I think the Senior Companion Program also fills a need in the community for senior services that wouldn’t be met otherwise.”
The job is not always easy, though.
Volunteers see clients at the end of their lives, often when their health at its worst. Most companions, including both Lillie and Martha, have had clients die, but Martha said there is a gratification in being there for someone who is otherwise alone at the end of their life.
Having a companion allows these seniors have something -- and someone -- to look forward to seeing regularly.
It’s a blessing the companions themselves hope to have, too.
“We’re old, too, and one day, we’ll be wanting this service ourselves, so that’s why we should get out and help other people,” Lillie said. “Because our time is coming.”