Marta Schick won’t eat without Jan Broxson.
Broxson calls the 96-year-old three times a day to check in and ask her what she’s eaten and how she’s feeling.
“I have to scold her on the phone, ‘You can’t take your pills on an empty stomach,’” Broxson explained. “She’s a stinker, but she’s got a great heart.”
Broxson volunteers with Panhandle Health District as a senior companion. On a weekly basis, she visits four elderly community members to keep them company and to help them if they need to go to the doctor’s office or the grocery store.
Broxson has been with Schick for five years now and loves hearing all her stories about growing up in Germany. Broxson herself was born in England, so they bond over a European upbringing.
Whenever she goes over to Schick’s house, the two sit in chairs next to the front window and chit chat about everything. Broxson usually has to shout questions at Schick because she refuses to wear her hearing aids.
Schick was in Germany during World War II. She hid in a cellar as her house was bombed. She delivered her only son by herself and was forced to go to the Nazi Party for help when she couldn’t produce enough milk to feed her newborn.
When she and her husband moved to New York in the 1950s, she opened a business as a seamstress, making dresses and doing upholstery. They then moved to Hollywood where she had many famous customers including Ann-Margret, Frank Sinatra and Gracie Allen.
Just about everything in Schick’s house is either from Germany or made by her.
She made all the curtains, tablecloths and even upholstered most of the furniture and pillows. But now with her husband gone, she’s become pretty lonely, and in her old age she can’t see well enough to thread a needle, which makes her sad.
“I feel very worthless,” Schick said in her heavy German accent. “Getting old is hard. Don’t get old.”
Whenever Schick gets depressed, Broxson is there to lift her back up, telling her how lucky she is to be so nimble and cognitive at her age.
“She spoils me,” Schick said with squinty eyes and a grin that filled her face. “She’s a wonderful companion.”
Broxson came to Coeur d’Alene from Nevada where she was a mental health and drug and alcohol counselor. When she retired, she wanted to continue to help people and give back, since her own career had been so lucrative.
She found the Senior Companion Program through Panhandle Health District and has never looked back.
The program is part of Senior Corps, a sister program to AmeriCorps. The Senior Companion Program serves about 150 clients throughout the five northern counties of Idaho. Service is free for clients and their families and volunteers get stipends and gas mileage reimbursement.
“It makes a huge difference for our clients; it’s easy to be lonely and isolated when you’re homebound and most people don’t want to move into a facility,” said Hannah Paton, the Senior Companion Project volunteer coordinator with the Panhandle Health District. “Just talking to someone, having a companion, having help running errands — sometimes that’s all the help they need.”
Right now, the program is seeking more volunteers. Only 50 volunteers are serving 150 clients, and there’s a waitlist for people who need services.
Usually, volunteers work between 15 and 40 hours each week. Clients are matched with volunteers who have similar personal interests and experiences, like Schick and Broxson, in hopes of creating true friendships.
“Seniors have worked all their lives and are very experienced in what they did. I think our communities undervalue people who are retired,” Paton said. “And I love the idea of seniors working with seniors; the relationships are rich and rewarding.”
Broxson said she’s been impressed and grateful for the high standard of ethics Panhandle Health District requires of its volunteers.
“They are the best people I’ve ever worked with,” she said, adding the program is very rewarding.
“As a senior companion, you become part of the family because you get so close. Sometimes a person needs someone other than family to talk to because they don’t want to burden their families with their problems. She tells me things she can’t tell her son.”
Schick turns 97 in two and a half weeks, but “I tell everyone I’m 92,” she said. Broxson will be at her birthday party, and promised to bring cheesecake.
“She’s a people person,” Broxson said. “The thought of getting old and not having anyone, that’s a scary thing.”
To volunteer as a senior companion, contact Hannah Paton at Panhandle Health District at 208-415-5177 or at email@example.com. For more information, visit seniorcompanionsidaho.org.