A growing number of seniors are healthy enough to live at home but need help with day to day tasks such as taking medication or getting groceries, and they also need companionship. If you have an elderly parent or another elderly relative who needs help during the week and you work full time and/or care for young children, unfortunately, you do not have the time to care for your relative full-time or even visit with them much during the week. Even if your parent(s) live with you and you don’t work, helping them on a daily basis can become a challenge. This is where companion care can be extremely valuable. Companion care is an in-home service that provides non-medical assistance and companionship to seniors.
What do care companions do?
Companions can do many things for your elderly relatives, but they cannot provide medical care. They are different from a CNA (certified nursing assistant) or home health aide in that companions are not medically trained and don’t provide medical services such as bathing, toileting, dressing, feeding, and administering medication. They can, however, remind seniors to take their medications and assist with light housekeeping and preparing meals. They may also run errands such as shopping and taking their clients to appointments.
One of the most important services they provide is being a companion to your elderly relative. They spend time with their elderly clients and can develop quite a close relationship with them. They may take them to the park, sit out in the yard with them, take them out for a walk, or play cards or read with them. Each person gets to know each other and very close bonds can form. Although the elder depends on their companion for a lot of daily tasks, they can come to view them as being just like a member of their family.
My sister was a companion caregiver at the beginning of her career before becoming a Recreation Therapy Director at a long-term care facility. She said of her time as a companion, “ It was a wonderful experience. I enjoyed talking with and becoming friends with the seniors I went to visit regularly. It becomes more than a job, you really begin to love these clients. I still keep in contact with the daughter of a senior who passed away. The daughter and mom were so appreciative of what I did for them – I was like an adopted granddaughter.”
Care companion qualifications
Training requirements for professional, non-family, companion caregivers vary by state. Some states do not have formal standards. When hiring a care companion you will want to ask the agency how they train staff, whether their caregivers are experienced, and whether they receive a background check. You may opt to hire a freelance caregiver who does not belong to an agency, but you want to be very careful in doing so. You may pay an agency companion more, but you will have greater peace of mind that he or she is trained, supervised, and experienced. Furthermore, when working with an agency, if your family member’s care companion is ill, the agency can send a substitute companion.
The goals of companion care
There are multiple goals of companion care. One is to help elders stay safe and independent at home for as long as possible. Aging in place has come to be seen as the preferable choice for most seniors and their families. This is completely doable as long as the senior has the daily support and help of a companion, whether it be a hired companion or family member. Especially during the pandemic, people are reluctant to place their loved one in a skilled nursing care or assisted living facility. Companion care can be a lifeline to helping families keep their elderly parents at home and in contact with a minimal number of caregivers, thereby reducing the risk their loved one will contract a virus that is circulating through a facility.
Another goal is to reduce social isolation which so many seniors feel, especially when they are living at home and their spouse has passed on and friends and family do not live close by. Depression among seniors is a growing problem. Isolation can be a trigger for depression, and some seniors do self medicate through pills or alcohol. For families who live far away from their elderly loved ones, companion care can give family members the peace of mind of knowing someone is there to check up on their loved one and to be a friend to them. Especially during the pandemic, when seniors cannot go out to a senior center or see friends due to the risk of transmission, companion caregivers can reduce seniors’ feelings of isolation and boredom.
For those family members who do care for their elderly loved ones for as many hours as possible during the week, companion care can provide a much needed respite. The companion caregiver may only come by twice a week, for example, but that can give caregivers a chance to run their own errands or do something for themselves.
How do I pay for companion care?
Medicare will generally only pay for medically necessary care (doctor prescribed), therefore companion care typically is not covered. Companions are not considered home health care aides and therefore are not staffed by Medicare approved home healthcare agencies. Through Medicaid, you may be able to get a part-time or full-time aide for your elderly relative if they qualify. These aides do not provide medical care but they can assist with bathing, housekeeping, cooking, and running errands such as getting groceries.
There are also a growing number of programs that pay family members to care for their loved ones at home. Some cities and states have their own programs, and Medicaid runs one as well. Some concerns about family caregiver programs include whether the family member is the right person to care for their elderly relative. For example do they have the patience and some caregiving experience? Also, will the family caregiver program paycheck be enough to allow the family member to quit their full-time job to become a full-time caregiver? Sometimes it will be preferable to simply hire a professional caregiver due to these obstacles.
Long term care insurance can help pay for some private companion care services. You can learn more about long-term care insurance at caring.com. AARP and some private life insurance companions offer long-term care insurance policies, but options have become fewer in recent years. These policies can also be expensive.
There are some programs, such as Senior Companions, which provide volunteer-based companion care for seniors. Senior Companions matches older volunteers, over the age of 55, with older adults who need companion care. This is one option for families who are unable to afford the expense of a companion care service.
How do I choose the right caregiver?
Companion care websites provide abundant information about the services they offer and whether their services are available in your area. They also explain how they match your elderly loved one with a companion. For example, you may request a care companion who speaks your loved one’s native language or a caregiver of a certain sex. AARP provides some excellent guides on how to choose a companion care agency and/or caregiver. Here is AARP’s checklist of questions you should ask agencies when looking for companion care. Here is information, also from AARP, about how to hire a caregiver.
The bottom line on companion care
If you live far from your loved one(s) or simply have to work and cannot be there for them 24/7, you might want to think about hiring a companion caregiver. It can be very difficult for seniors who are in relatively good health to qualify for home healthcare through Medicare, so companion care may be your only option.
Before you set out to find a private companion care agency, do your homework first, as this could save you some dollars. Find out if there is a volunteer program in your area. Also, call Medicaid and find out if your loved one would be eligible for any programs that provide non-medical care in the home.
If you do decide to go with private companion care, look into several agencies and compare what they have to offer and their costs. Look at their reviews online and ask around on social media and in your community about which agencies your friends and neighbors have used. Would they recommend that agency? Were they happy with the care provided to their loved ones?
Hiring any type of help for your elderly loved ones can be a difficult step, but know that home health care is not your only option. More and more private companion care agencies are entering the market, providing you with more choices than ever before. Remember, you are hiring help not only for your loved one but for your own health and peace of mind as well.