Three mornings a week VaLois Strait heads over to the Friendly Neighborhood Senior Center to see Elsie Duncan.

The two go down to the basement for the low-impact aerobic exercise class that Strait, a retired recreational therapist, teaches. Although she is 94, and mostly confined to a wheelchair, Elsie goes through the routine with the best of them: kicking her legs, rolling her shoulders, stretching her arms. Wiggling, concentrating, smiling.

"Elsie's very determined," says Strait. "This morning when I got there, she was even up making her bed."

After class, the two go up to the dining room, where Elsie gets a pre-lunch cookie. They chat, they wave and they visit with Elsie's friends. Everyone knows Elsie, and well they should. She has lived in the building for 26 years. "Elsie's the sweetest," says Strait. "Everyone loves her."

After lunch, a harmonica band is coming to play for the group. Then the two women may go back up to Elsie's room to watch a little television. "Little Joe is her favorite," says Strait. "She likes 'Bonanza.' "

"And 'Little House On the Prairie,' too," chips in Elsie.

Strait's visits provide companionship for Elsie, and something more.

"These visits have played a big part in the fact that Elsie has not had to go into a nursing home, has been able to live and be independent in her own apartment," says Bev O'Brien-Bell, program assistant for the Senior Companion program, which hooked the two women up.

The program is designed to provide help for frail and elderly people to enable them stay in their own homes as long as possible. It can also provide respite for caregivers and give them a chance to rejuvenate.

One woman who had been taking care of her husband could only go to the corner convenience store for bread and milk when he was asleep. "When they got a senior companion, she said she just went to the mall and sat for four hours. It was the first time she had been out in such a long time," says O'Brien-Bell.

But, she says, "It is a dual program. We find that it benefits the companions as much as the clients."

The Senior Companion program is part of Salt Lake County Aging Services and also receives matching funds from the Corporation for National Service.

Senior companions must be 60 years old or older and fall under certain income levels. They commit to working 20 hours a week and receive a stipend of $200-$350 per month, plus reimbursement for mileage driven and an allowance for lunch. They earn a day of sick leave and vacation each month, and they get a free physical examination once a year.

So there are some nice benefits for the companions, says O'Brien-Bell. "But we find the biggest benefit is that they feel they are doing something for someone else; they enjoy that sense of helping others.

"We had a study on altruism and health done at the University of Utah, and it found that people are healthier and see their doctors less when they are out doing things for other people."

Sometimes the companions will do light housekeeping or help fix meals. They may run errands to the grocery story or take their client to a doctor's appointment.

Driving is not a requirement. Many of the senior companions take the bus. "We have one companion that takes her client on bus rides all over the valley. They have a great time."

Many of them visit elderly folks who have no family in the area. But even when family is near, the client can benefit from a senior companion, says O'Brien-Bell. It makes people feel good to know that someone outside the family cares.

Often, she says, the clients will dress up, will make a special effort for the visits from the senior companions because they know "company" is coming.

One of the elderly clients had not spoken to anyone, including her family, for several years. But a few weeks after the senior companion started coming, the woman started talking to the companion. "Sometimes a hug or a back rub or just someone to listen to you can make a big difference."

Senior companions usually visit their clients once or twice a week, and most work with three or four different people at a time.

Strait, who has been a senior companion for three years, currently has one other woman under her wing. "Linnie had a stroke, and it affected her mind. She just likes to reminisce. So I just go visit and let her talk."

But she has worked with other clients as well. And, she says, you learn to watch out for problems. One of her clients was diabetic, and Strait noticed that her foot was turning black. "I called the family, and the woman was taken to the hospital."

Recently, she came to visit Elsie and found her still in bed. "That worried me, so as soon as I got home I called her son. It turned out that Elsie just needed a day of rest, and she's fine now."

But, says O'Brien-Bell, the senior companions really are the eyes and ears out in the community for the Division of Aging Services. "They notice things. They may see unusual bruises that need to be checked out. Or may notice if the person is not eating or not taking medications. They become advocates for their clients."

They try to match clients and companions according to interests as much as possible — those who might like to play cards, those who are history buffs, and so on.

About a third of their companions are men, and they always ask if their clients prefer men or women, she says. "But we have men visiting women and women visiting men." Aging Services does background checks on the volunteers through the County Sheriff's department, so safety issues are addressed.

"We just have a great group of volunteers," she says. Some have been in the program for years; some have spent seven and eight years with the same person. "They are very dedicated and determined. They are the warmest, most open group."

Currently there are about 80 volunteers serving as senior companions. "But we need more. We have a waiting list of about 250 clients who would like to be in the program." And, she says, as the baby boomers come along, they will need more.

Once volunteers get into the program, though, they tend to stay. "We have a lot who are hesitant at first. And we tell them to give it a try. After a couple of weeks, they are committed. And some end up giving more than their 20 hours. We have to watch them."

A lot of them end up just like VaLois Strait. "I sometimes feel guilty taking a paycheck," she says. You get to know the people, learn about their earlier lives. You care about them. It becomes a social thing for both of you, she says, much better than sitting and looking at four dreary walls.

Strait enjoys knowing that she is making a difference. "What are we here for if not to help?"

But she also knows it isn't a one-way relationship. "When you help someone else, you help yourself. I told my doctor I was doing this, he said, 'Good. They'll live longer, and so will you.'"


E-mail: carma@desnews.com