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Language Is No Barrier For Senior Companions

Emily Proctor

Frank Havlick and Chuck Gheer get together every Tuesday at Chuck’s place. It’s a small room with a twin bed, a recliner in the corner, and pictures of children hanging on the walls. Here they read scripture, listen to music and chat about life.

"Look at this picture of women and they’re always what? Beautiful! I said, you like to marry her? I said yes," Havlick jokes with Gheer.

Havlick and Gheer didn't meet by chance, they had some help from a program called Senior Companions through Missoula Aging Services.

Havlick’s an almost-75-year-old Czech native. Gheer is 60 and from Washington, but now he lives off Reserve Street at Beehive Homes in Missoula. He suffers from a brain injury he got in a car accident at age twenty-four. This affected his sight, he’s completely blind, and his memory.

"In the past I don’t remember much of anything," said Gheer. "Like what I did yesterday or even what I had for breakfast. Because of this, the head injury."

Gheer is one of the 163 clients the program is helping this year. Before Havlick’s work as a senior companion, he worked in Las Vegas for a few years until retiring and moving to Montana to be closer to his son. But when he got here, he found he had too much free time. That’s when he met a lady through Missoula Aging Services who recommended Havlick become what they call a “senior companion.”

"So it was good for me that I have at least somebody I may talk to you know," said Havlick. "If I wasn’t working for this, I actually wouldn’t use English for speaking at all."

There are fewer than 30 volunteers for the program for the Missoula area and more are needed. Senior companions need to be at least 55 and in relatively good health. Senior companions do all sorts of things for their clients: drive them to doctors appointments, help with basic chores around their homes, take them out for lunch. The bigger goal is to help other older people keep their independence by keeping them out of nursing homes.

"One of my clients can’t move left hand only right hand," explained Havlick. "But he is, he loves cribbage and I come over there playing cribbage."

Right now, Havlick has four clients he visits with weekly. But he’s had up to six at a time in his eleven years with the program. He said he’s made many friendships this way, but there’s an additional perk too. The companions actually get paid for the hours they spend with clients if they meet minimum income standards.

"We spend with these clients about four hours so we get $10 and I’ll tell you something, this is actually the only money I may spend," he said.

It’s a non-taxable stipend of $2.45 an hour. It doesn’t sound like much, but for Havlick, it’s his only disposable income after collecting his retirement. He was able to save it over time to do something pretty special.

"I went with my grandson in Czech Republic," said Havlick. "You know what, I paid for the trip, everything for two people. Everything I paid."

It meant so much to take his eldest grandchild to the place he was raised. That happened because of the time he makes for people who need just a little help.

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