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Senior volunteers: the Bush push. (View on Washington).

In his 2002 State of the Union Address, President Bush surprised many with the intensity of his call for Americans to volunteer to help others. "My call tonight is for every American to commit at least two years--4,000 hours over the rest of your lifetime--to the service of your neighbors and your nation.... If you aren't sure how to help, I've got a good place to start. To sustain and extend the best that has emerged in America, I invite you to join the new USA Freedom Corps. The Freedom Corps will focus on three areas of need: responding in case of crisis at home; rebuilding our communities; and extending American compassion throughout the world."

USA Freedom Corps is, in fact, a new term that applies primarily to a wide range of separate volunteer programs, including some that have existed for more than 30 years. Several of these programs require congressional reauthorization this year to remain in existence. The results of the debates over reauthorization provisions will be an important test of the resolve of the administration and of Congress to transform the President's call for more volunteerism into a reality. It also will determine the impact that increased volunteerism can have on long-term care.

The cornerstone of organized federal volunteerism in support of long-term care is the Senior Companion Program. The Senior Companion Program is a component of the Senior Service Corps, part of the Corporation for National and Community Service. The Senior Companion Program is narrowly targeted for the purpose of providing low-income persons aged 60 or over to serve as "senior companions" to persons with exceptional needs. As defined in the U.S. Code, Senior Companions provide services designed to help persons requiring long-term care, including services to persons receiving home health care, nursing care, home-delivered meals or other nutrition services." Although most recipients of Senior Companion project services are frail elderly, the program also provides companions to de-institutionalized mental patients and to intellectually impaired clients.

The Senior Companion Program began in 1973 following a landmark White House Conference on Aging. It was conceived as both an opportunity to involve older Americans in volunteer service and as a means to alleviate poverty among the elderly. Participants in the program must work a minimum of 20 hours per week. They receive a tax-free stipend of $2.45 per hour that does not account as income for the purpose of determining Social Security benefits.

By 1993, the Senior Companion Program involved 12,000 volunteers in 182 projects nationally. Once described in an NBC news report as the "best-kept secret in Washington," the program exhibited almost no growth during the Clinton administration. According to Lynne Brown-Zounes, president of The National Association of Senior Companion Project Directors (NASCPD), there are now 190 Senior Companion projects nationwide, with an average of 6O volunteers each.

Brown-Zounes and others involved with the Senior Companion Program are enthusiastic about its effects on both the volunteers and the frail elderly whom they serve. Most Senior Companions work with homebound clients, whom they can assist with toileting, washing and other activities of daily living. OBRA and licensing restrictions prevent the volunteers from performing similar services in institutions, but several thousand of them help with recreational activities in skilled nursing facilities, assisted living facilities and adult day care centers.

Above all, the one-on-one interaction offered by the Senior Companion Program is a major source of support to both the volunteers and their clients. Describing 80-year-oldvolunteers who have been with the program for decades, Brown-Zounes said, "I firmly believe that many of them would not be around today if they were not involved as Senior Companions."

The administration's budget calls for a modest increase in funding for the Senior Companion Program next year, and executives of the Corporation for National and Community Service have developed some implausible "homeland defense" justifications that they hope will smooth the path for reauthorization. Allegedly, in the event of an emergency, Senior Companions will provide clients with "a safe place to go" and will reassure family members of the clients that their frail or mentally impaired relative has escaped the threat of serious harm.

Members of the NASCPD and other supporters of the Senior Companion Program have a more practical vision of an enlarged program as an outlet for the volunteer energy of hundreds of additional older Americans. Thirty years ago, when the Nixon administration instituted Senior Companions, nearly one-third of all older Americans had incomes below the poverty level. Today, with poverty rates among the elderly below 12%, many of the employment-focused restrictions on eligibility for Senior Companions present serious barriers to the program's growth. Some supporters hope that reauthorization provisions will reduce or eliminate some of these restrictions. Suggested reforms include:

These changes would recognize that the small tax-free stipend is not a major incentive for most older Americans to join the ranks of Senior Companions. Instead, in today's economy, it is likely to be compensation for the costs of transportation and out-of-home meals incurred by the volunteers.

An expanded Senior Companion Program cannot replace the technically skilled services provided by long-term care professionals. The OBRA "reforms" also place additional restrictions on the contributions of these dedicated, federally subsidized volunteers in institutional settings. However, if the reauthorization of the Senior Companion Program focuses on the needs of the chronically ill and mentally impaired, more older Americans will be able to respond to President Bush's call for volunteer service in a way that enriches and prolongs the lives of long-term care residents.

Additional information on the Senior Companion Program, including contacts for the program in your state, can be found at www.seniorcorps.org/joining/ scp/index.html and at www.nascpd.org.

RELATED ARTICLE: * Reducing the 20-hour minimum requirement for weekly service to 5 hours, or permitting local projects more flexibility in scheduling.

* Lowering the minimum age for volunteer service from 60 to 55 years.

* Increasing the annual income limit on volunteers from $11,500 to more than $17,000, or eliminating the limit entirely.
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Author:Stoil, Michael J.
Publication:Nursing Homes
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2002
Words:1004
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