Ask Helen Gray when she retired, and the 74-year-old deadpans, ”I'm not.“
Though Gray quit her career as a factory worker making typewriters and then computers for a subsidiary of IBM a dozen years ago, her days are filled to the brim now in a role she never knew she had in her: serving as the unofficial social chair of Emerson Center—an independent-living apartment community for seniors on Garden Springs Drive.
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When Gray moved into the community five years ago, she didn't know anyone there, and she kept to herself. She'd always been shy — ”a little backward“ is the way she puts it.
But that changed one day when she attended an information session on becoming a companion through the Senior Companion Program, which was launched nationally in 1974 and became active locally in 1988. The program pairs active senior volunteers ages 60 and over with more frail elderly clients—many of whom suffer from physical challenges or mild dementia and need help to remain independent.
Gray took the leap to sign up for the program and in just two years' time, her work as a companion has transformed her.
”I know everybody in this building now,“ she said.
Duties range from chores to walks
Gray volunteers 20 hours each week as a companion to two clients, Mary Bryan and Frances Austin, who also live at the Emerson Center. She helps them with housecleaning and other chores, drives them on errands, helps them prepare meals, takes walks with them around the center and sometimes just sits with them and visits.
”(Helen) is a wonderful person. She's done an awful lot for me,“ said Bryan, who is in her 80s. Bryan credits Gray's help with allowing her to remain independent and keep living at the Emerson Center, rather than moving in with her son's family—something she's hesitant to do, for fear of becoming a burden, she said.
”I don't know what I would have done without her on several occasions. She's been there whenever I called her, or when I told her that something wasn't just right, she was there,“ Bryan said. ”Sometimes when I'm not feeling as good as I should, we just sit around and laugh. We always have a marvelous time.“
In addition to volunteering as a companion, Gray has become an active fund-raiser for the program as well, often spearheading bake sales, raffles and other events to support its work and offset transportation costs for its volunteers. Last Christmas, she also organized a toy drive among the program's volunteers to support Toys for Tots, something she plans to make an annual tradition.
”She goes above and beyond,“ said Janet Gates, director of the local Senior Companion Program, which currently has about 83 volunteers serving some 230 clients in 10 Central Kentucky counties.
Earlier this year, on the basis of Gates' nomination, Gray was named a national finalist for the Senior Corps Spirit of Service Awards, given by the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees the Senior Companion Program nationally.
Gray said she gets out of the program far more than she puts in.
”Oh, Lord, you get so close to your clients. You can see what you're doing. You can tell by their expressions how grateful they are,“ she said. ”They become your friends.“
One thing led to another
It was Gray's activism with the Senior Companion Program that prompted her to get more involved with the social life of her residence community as well, where she now serves as president of the Emerson Center's ”2050 Club.“ (The name of the social club, which is open to all residents, refers to the building's address: 2050 Garden Springs Drive.)
Before Gray took on the role, there were few social events at the center, and little opportunity for mixing and mingling. For many of the aging residents living on their own, it was a recipe for loneliness.
Gray saw how much getting out of their apartments helped to lift the spirits of her Senior Companion Program clients, and she wanted to extend those opportunities for everyone at the center.
Now, she and her roommate and best friend, Joan Smith, who serves as the club's vice president, book live music shows twice a month—country, rock, even Elvis impersonators. They plan holiday parties and weekly movie nights and evenings where participants can enjoy dinner together in the common area or a cup of coffee and a slice of Smith's famous chocolate or lemon meringue pies for only $1.
”They'll come down here for hours and just sit and talk now,“ said Gray of the residents. ”That's what it's all about, just getting them down here talking.“
”We can't get out of our apartment now without someone calling us over to ask about tickets for the next show or an upcoming event,“ said Smith.
Said Kim Horn, manager of Emerson Center: ”Just the difference in how (residents) are mentally is amazing. They're peppier. They want to come down and participate. Before, they were hesitant to come out of their apartments, but now we're at capacity (in the common room) every time Helen plans an event.“
And Gray feels as though she's on a mission.
When she's not working as a senior companion, she's scouring the streets seeking out donations to support the program or to help offset the cost of performers and activities at the Emerson Center.
”My whole seven days is took up,“ she said. ”And I love it.“
Gone is the shy Helen Gray who used to hide in the corners, the one who had always been self-conscious of the leg and ankle brace that she's worn since she was a young girl. These days, she doesn't feel like anyone even notices her brace.
All she sees is a woman she once wouldn't have recognized as herself—one who wasn't afraid to approach John Michael Montgomery recently in his restaurant to ask him if he wouldn't like to come and play a show at the Emerson Center?
Sure he would, he said.
”I like to have fainted when he said yes,“ she said.