Just talk to Walter McMiller for five minutes about his work for Durham-based A Helping Hand and it’s clear that he means it when he says “I just love these people.”
McMiller, a retired state auditor, is one of about 100 companions working for the nearly 20 year-old nonprofit whose mission is to help seniors age in place with “a helping hand” from friends and family.
“These families are heroes,” says McMiller, who has a handful of regular clients he serves each week along with some assignments on an “as needed” basis.
Growing old in your own home, with a little help from your friends and family, is a cost-effective way to preserve quality of life, it turns out. A Helping Hand allows families to meet the needs of seniors and disabled people that go beyond medical services.
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For 350 families in the Triangle, A Helping Hand provides transportation to medical appointments, help with shopping and sometimes simple companionship and respite care. This is especially valuable for families of clients with dementia issues who just need a few hours to take a deep breath.
“It’s unbelievable the challenges these families face,” said McMiller. “They’re generous and courageous.”
The founder, Cathy Ahrendsen, began the agency in her Chapel Hill home in 1995 with a mission of providing support services to help her clients just as she had helped her own parents.
“We’re very fortunate,” said Executive Director Jennifer Ashley. “Our companions are high-caliber people who want to work with seniors and really appreciate them.” Ashley has been on the job just three months, but says she’s hit the ground running since arriving in Durham. “The founder’s spark is still here,” she said.
McMiller, says Ashley, is a great example of what that mission is all about. “He’s so creative with his clients. When our phone rings in the office, we joke that it’s the ‘Walter Praise Line’ – his families love him so much.”
One of McMiller’s clients, a man in his 80s, had on his “bucket list” that he would like to go fishing. McMiller took his client through the whole process.
Like an auditor, he broke it down to several steps and prepared for the big day.
“We got him some equipment, then fixed him a tackle box with hooks and sinkers. Next step was to practice casting,” he said. “You’ve got to get the line out to where the fish are, but this takes some practice.”
After backyard casting practice, McMiller brought his client to the Eno River. “He did great!” he said. Asked if they caught anything, McMiller laughed. “No, no of course not. But he got a couple of nibbles. He did very well.”
Through a combination of paid companions and internships for college students who are learning about working with the elderly, A Helping Hand is able to meet the needs of its clients using a sliding scale based on ability to pay for services. Thirty percent of its services are made possible by the charity program.
The agency provides training to volunteers who would like to help and accepts donations of items such as birthday cards. A Helping Hand also participates in a project called “Music in My Mind” sponsored by the Orange County Department of Aging. The project aims to improve the quality of life for home care residents and others with dementia by providing MP3 players with personalized playlists to clients. Donations of used MP3 players are welcome.
“The whole industry has shifted away from the medical setting,” said Ashley. “Our focus is on seniors aging safely at home.”