By A.M. Sheehan
COUNTY — Dee Farr has battled disabilities all her life and never felt disabled.
The 55-year-old Oxford resident had lived with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis since she was 8 years old and, she says, always had mobility issues.
Then in her teens, she began to live with retinitis pigmentosa – inherited diseases causing retinal degeneration – which, she explains, causes a loss of peripheral vision through a gradual process.
None of this slowed her down as she adapted and carried on.
A lab tech at Stephens Memorial Hospital until her arthritis forced her retirement, she 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. She “lost” her license. In actuality she didn’t lose it, the state DMV simply refused to renew it as she had lost too much of her field of vision, she says.
The state requires a binocular visual field of 150 degrees or better. (Humans 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 explains, “and, ultimately, I could go blind.”
Although she has a minimal field of vision, what she can see is very clear, she says.
The loss of her license “was the most difficult thing I’ve had happen.”
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 laughs explaining that she has never been much of a planner so we would cook whatever inspired her on a given day and need to get the ingredients.
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 says, noting that her husband didn’t enjoy going into the store nor did he enjoy sitting in the car. 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 recalls. “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.
Then 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.”
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 as she was considered homebound.
So she and Coffin began to get to know each other ultimately forming 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,” says Farr, “Katey says, ‘What are we doing today?’ and I’ll say, ‘Hannford and out to lunch!'”
Farr says 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,” says Coffin who quickly adds that Dee is her friend as well.
“Each of my clients have very different circumstances,” she says. 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,” she explains.
Coffin used to do homecare, she says, 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 says, “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, explains Coffin, 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.”
Sixty-seven-year-old Anna Saar, of Turner, program coordinator for Oxford, Franklin and Androscoggin counties, explains that the program partners with Seniors Plus, Catholic Charities’ SEARCH (Seek Elderly And Renew Courage and Hope) 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 as well and oversees the companions, managing about 12 companions directly.
“We provide monthly trainings so our companions can help clients help themselves,” she explains, noting that 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. We all work as a team.”
Saar says 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.
Saar does this all in a 15-hour work week.
She says she 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 and two in Androscoggin. She needs more male companions, she says.
She 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 clarifies, “we are more than that, we are companions.”
The companion program is free to clients. Any costs would be gas reimbursement and that is worked out between the client and the companion, Saar says.
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 inspection and registration and undergo a criminal background check. They will then go through orientation and shadowing before receiving their own clients.
“I love the companions, they are so compassionate … beyond belief and they go out of their way,” Saar says. “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 & Dee
Farr is now living a very active life again. She enjoys crafts, does bead work, knits, reads, watches TV and spins wool from her two angora goats. All this she can do with her limited field of vision. And she cooks, thanks to Katey’s help.
“I have a wonderful community,” says Farr, explaining that 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.”
Currently learning to use a white cane so that if she loses her sight she will be ready, she is pragmatic about what she calls her limitations.
“I consider this [white cane] a tool. Just like my regular cane. Just tools for living.”
When they get to the grocery store, says Coffin, “I disappear. Dee wants to be independent.”
“Having someone at my side is dangerous,” Farr adds, 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.” Droopy also has vision problems with only one eye.
Coffin, a divorced mother of two grown children and grandmother of three, says, “I benefit as much as my clients.”
Farr adds, “She sure made a difference in my life!”
- provide companionship
- foster contact with family, friends
- prevent loneliness, isolation
- provide emotional support
- encourage exercise, recreational activities
- provide respite for family/caregivers
- assist with meal planning, food prep
- provide nutrition info
- help fill out forms, read mail, write letters, plan budget
- provide info about services
- meet new friends
- know you are helping
- tax-free stipend*
- earned sick, vacation
- mileage reimbursement
- supplemental insurance
- annual physical
- 18 years of age or older
- chronically ill or elderly
- homebound or isolated
- desire companionship
- difficulty running errands
- desire for social contact
- home management difficulty
- minor transportation needs
- nutritional knowledge, food prep
- caregiver (respite) relief
Companions are not:
- medical personnel
- a cleaning service
- to be physically involved in finances
- to perform repairs, yard work or heavy lifting
Anyone interested in becoming a companion or a client should contact Anna Saar at 743-6329 or 800-287-1482.