According to the U.S. Census Bureau, almost 50% of Denver’s female population over the age of 65 lives alone and the majority have annual household incomes below poverty. The combination of gender, age and poverty creates an environment that disconnects elderly women from the larger community. This can be followed by fear, isolation, a feeling of helplessness and even death. Without a concerted effort to re-establish connections with the community, there is little chance for improvement.
Ruth Harris is an 83-year old woman who has gone beyond the call of duty as a Senior Companion Volunteer. She is the Point of Light who turns fear into courage, isolation into engagement and helplessness to empowerment. More importantly, she brings friendship, love and a reason to live into the lives of persons she serves. Single-handedly, she greatly improves their quality of life and becomes the family to clients that have no family.
Ruth ‘serves’ as a Senior Companion Volunteer for 20 hours per week at Denver’s Health Center at Franklin Park. For those 20 hours, Ruth receives a stipend of $2.65 per hr. Additionally, Ruth donates her own personal time on holidays and weekends to visit with her clients. She humors them with jokes and sometimes sings to them. Ruth was an entertainer in her younger years and utilizes these talents to help clients experience a brighter side of life. Some days, Ruth pushes wheelchairs outside so that her clients can get some fresh air and say hello to neighbors Ruth believes that being connected to the community is a relative measure; it depends on where people are at the moment.
Despite her height at four feet and two inches, she lets nothing interfere with her volunteer work. She faithfully boards the Access-A-Bus (Denver’s handicap bus service) everyday to arrive at her volunteer site on time. Ruth’s activities include providing companionship and support to chronically ill senior citizens as well as Alzheimer’s and AIDS’ patients.
Seniors! Inc. in Denver, CO, is the nation’s first Senior Companion Program, starting in 1974. Remarkably, Ruth has served 23 of those years. She has volunteered over 22,000 hours and served over 1,100 clients. Ruth says “This involvement gives purpose and meaning to my life. It keeps me young.”
Regular survey results show that over 80% of Ruth’s clients believe their quality of life has improved greatly due to the services she provides. Her supervisors say she’s irreplaceable and that when Ruth walks through the door, the environment brightens noticeably.
Ruth Harris and other Senior Companion Program Volunteers improve the quality of life of persons often left behind; and exemplify the spirit of “Seniors helping Seniors.” Ruth Harris brings a loving face and big hearth to this spirit, which is why she’s know throughout her community as “Little Ruth with the Big Heart.”