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Grand Junction program honors elders

Sharon Sullivan
ssullivan@gjfreepress.com
Louise Buhler, almost 92, with her senior companion, Mary Wiergenga. Wiergenga helps Buhler by shopping for her groceries and providing transportation for various errands. Wiergenga was visiting Buhler on Friday.
Sharon Sullivan | Free Press

Louise Buhler used to love driving, and it really bothers her that she can no longer drive due to the macular degeneration that has diminished her eyesight, she said.

She’s sharp, and despite being legally blind, the almost 92-year-old woman has remained independent thanks to St. Mary’s Hospital Senior Companion program that pairs volunteers with home-bound seniors who no longer drive.

Another senior, 74-year-old Mary Wierenga, has visited Buhler weekly for four-and-a-half years, allowing Buhler to remain in her home outside of Fruita where she’s lived for the past 33 years.



A large screened video magnifier allows Buhler to pay her bills and read her mail. Buhler keeps up with literature by checking out 15 audio books at a time from the Colorado Talking Book Library.

“It’s a blessing,” Buhler said. “I’ve always been a voracious reader. If I couldn’t read, I’d be miserable.”



But it’s Wierenga that brings Buhler to the doctor, or to the bank, or on other simple errands.

And “a lot of times we just sit and yak,” Wierenga said.

Occasionally they go out for lunch — “that’s fun,” said Buhler, who’s particularly fond of Munchies in Fruita.

“Their chicken-fried steak sandwich is out of this world,” she said with a grin.

On Friday, Buhler wore a colorful sweater and earrings; her hair is still dark, belying her age. She’s had a stroke and a hip replacement since her husband “Dutch” died four years ago, and uses a walker only because doctors suggested it due to her low vision. They don’t want her to fall.

She exercises daily by walking a circle from the living room through the kitchen and into another room and back out to the front room. She checks her stride and counts steps to mark when she’s completed a quarter-mile. Before snow covered the ground she walked outside.

Her children, in their 60s, once suggested she move in to town, but Buhler prefers to remain in the country where she’s always lived as a farmer’s wife.

Wierenga makes it possible for her to do so by visiting and doing her grocery shopping each week.

“She’s happy here,” Wierenga said.

Buhler agreed. “I’m real comfortable here. I feel safe. There’s no point in (moving to) town.”

Wierenga was a nurse and respiratory therapist for 50 years. Her first senior companion client was seven years ago in Washington state where there was a similar program. She’s been active in the St. Mary’s program since moving to Fruita five years ago.

Program director Tamara Vliek seeks to match volunteers to clients compatibly, Wierenga said.

“If it’s not a good match, you can go to someone else,” she said.

Clients and volunteers interview one another before deciding whether to work together. The service is free to seniors, who are 60 or older, no longer drive and still live at home.

“Senior companions are key to people living in their homes as long as possible,” Vliek said.

Of 134 clients surveyed in October, the vast majority said their senior companions not only helped them with crucial transportation needs, but also decreased feelings of boredom, sadness, loneliness and that their quality of life had improved, according to program statistics.

Low-income volunteers who make $27,000 or less receive a small stipend of $2.65 an hour, tax-free, plus an additional 36 cents a mile in mileage reimbursement — a “little something extra” for their time and effort, Vliek said.

There are guidelines and time restraints so that clients do not overly rely on the companions.

Wierenga helps five clients — visiting each once a week for three hours at a time.

“Mary is more than a senior companion,” Buhler said. “She’s a friend.”

The Senior Companion program can be reached at 970-298–9092.


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