Millie Karlin finds joy in being a friend through Fort Hays State University Senior Companion program

Charles Rankin
Hays Daily News
Fort Hays State University.

For one woman, understanding that seniors are "special people" made her want to serve them, beginning after she herself retired.

Part of AmeriCorps, the Senior Companion program at Fort Hays State University is now in its 47th year. Millie Karlin is one of the longest-serving members in the program, volunteering for 20 years as of this month.

She said she heard about the Senior Companion program through newspaper articles and somewhat knew the director at the time.

"I felt  maybe I could fill a need in the life of a senior living alone and attempting to remain living on their own with a little outside help," Karlin said.

Karlin saw this as opportunity to serve a group of people that are often overlooked.

"I have a love for the elderly and enjoy the sparkle in their eye," Karlin said.

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That love motivated her then and continues to motivate her now. She wants to give back to the community she, and the seniors she serve, live in.

Many of the seniors just want someone to talk or listen to, as they live alone while still remaining independent in their homes.

"I feel it is very important to keep them apprised of daily happenings and hear them share their past life experiences," Karlin said. "They appreciate good listeners."

Karlin thought being a part of this program would fit in nicely in retirement. She spent 52 years working with the public, half of that in the the insurance industry and the other half with the United States Department of Agriculture.

Karlin's husband died before she began volunteering as a companion, and she doesn't have family in the area, so she understood the need to have someone around to talk and listen to.

"I love being a companion because there is trust confidentiality, honesty and timeliness," Karlin said. "Suddenly, they feel you are part of their family."

Tawnya Rohr, the director of the senior companion program at Fort Hays State University, said the work these companions do is important.

"Mostly, they visit one-on-one with seniors to help them live independently and remain in their homes," Rohr said.

One thing that Karlin said she likes is being outside the home with the seniors.

"They each enjoy getting out among neighbors and friends," Karlin said.

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Rohr said getting out to go for walks helps to keep people active and encourages exercise.

While Karlin does things like helping to take seniors to run errands like grocery shopping, going to the bank or the beauty shop, Rohr said the most important thing about the program is really the companionship that is offered.

Later this month, Millie Karlin celebrates 20 years of service with the Senior Companion Program in Hays.

"Loneliness and isolation is such a risk factor for elderly people and the aged community," Rohr said. "Mostly they're just there. They're just a friend."

The program covers 14 counties and is the only one of its kind in western Kansas. Rohr said having that companionship is vital to seniors in this part of the state.

"In our rural communities, it's really important," Rohr said. "So many families are unable to be there themselves sometimes."

Karlin agreed that this is an important thing for these people in the community.

"(We) can take the time to make them feel important and needed," Karlin said.

Being there for the community helps lift up Karlin too, and she said she has loved the 20 years of her life spent as a companion.

"I feel sometimes you can be a giant by your actions and confidence," Karlin said.