Of all the things that become more difficult as we age, one of the most challenging is the loneliness that comes with losing friends and loved ones. A Pennsylvania program is hoping to change that by sending companions to visit elderly people who may otherwise have no one to talk to.
64-year-old Pamela Liddell is a volunteer with the Senior Companion Program in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. It's a Department of Human Services program that receives federal funding from the Corporation for National and Community Service. Liddell volunteers in the Pittsburgh area and visits several homebound elderly people a week.
One of the seniors she's assigned to is 90-year-old Josephine Toia. Liddell visits her twice a week for three hours at a time. While Liddell says she becomes friends with all the people she visits, she and Toia have formed a special bond.
Both grew up in the Pittsburgh area, have three kids and are now great-grandmothers. That's the point of the program: to pair seniors with volunteers they may have something in common with.
Volunteers must be 55 or older, said Kurt Emmerling, DHS Deputy Director for the Area Agency on Aging — and there's a reason for that. "It's designed so [seniors] have a peer," he said.
"We really do want our seniors to feel good about themselves. There's nothing wrong to speaking to generations that are younger ... but when it comes to sharing a common background, you want somebody closer in age to you. And that's the main reason why," Emmerling continued.
Most of the seniors and companions just chat during their visits. Liddell and Toia do a bit more. "We talk. We go in the laundry room. We walk in the hall," Liddell told CBS News with a laugh, adding that Toia likes to get her exercise in by going up and down her hallway using her walker.
Toia, whose family doesn't live nearby, has arthritis and limited mobility, so having someone like Liddell around is very helpful. But Liddell doesn't just help her do things that have become difficult with old age; she is also someone to confide in.
"We talk about our family. Especially her husband," Liddell said. "She misses him so much. She loved her husband ... they were soul mates for real."
Toia and her husband were married for more than 60 years until he died about three years ago. "Let's face it, I'm lonely," she told CBS News during Liddell's visit. While losing him has been a difficult experience, she's happy to have a companion like Liddell to talk to.
"We have so much fun just talking about different things, different subjects," Toia said. "She's very warm. Very considerate."
"You would think we've known each other for years," Liddell said.
Both women agreed that Liddell likes to "spoil" Toia. During one visit in January, she made her a sandwich and brought her homemade potato salad to go with it — plus soda and licorice as an extra treat.
Liddell, who worked as a senior aide before she retired, said helping the elderly is her "passion."
"They need friends. They'd be so lonely in that house sometimes," she said. "And they're sitting there looking at those walls, the telephone ain't ringing. They need some company. And I'm gonna be the one that makes them happy."
"I treat them like my mom," she added. The age gap between Liddell and some of the seniors she visits is the same age difference between herself and her mother. So she finds herself watching the same old movies she used to watch with her mom.
Liddell said being a senior companion is beneficial to her too, and in her five years of volunteering with the program, she's made many friends. "Really, they're helping me, too. Because I was a lonely something, too," she said.
At the end of the day, when the women have finished their chat, their walk and their lunch, Liddell says she feels that God put her in the right place. "I feel like I did something that God would've wanted me to do. At least I did something for today," she said. "You're supposed to help people. And I'm trying to walk with God, so I have to help people."