Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald



Elsie Bennett is a friendly woman who is well-acquainted with her neighbors.

Still, Bennett, who'll turn 80 in May, has been lonely in the home she and her husband moved to from Myrtle Point before his death two years ago.

The thought of losing her fourth husband, Claude "Jay" Bennett, still brings tears to her eyes, as she recalls how he returned to his hometown to die.

She suffered another setback in December 2010 when she fell in her backyard and broke her left hip. She lay in the yard for about a half-hour before a woman came by to check on her son's cat. The woman looked into Bennett's backyard when she heard her cries for help, which she said sounded to her like the mew of a cat.

An ambulance was summoned immediately and except for the broken hip, Bennett, who says she was comfortably dressed for the sunny winter day, suffered no ill effects from exposure.

She since has signed up for an emergency medical alert system that, in addition to a home base system, includes a small mobile unit that links her directly tothe Baker County 9-1-1 dispatch center should she need help when she's outdoors or away from home.

Her hip's been repaired, and she's regaining her mobility.

And Bennett credits Julie Adams with helping speed her progress.

Adams, 72, is a senior companion paired with Bennett through Community Connection, which serves as the program's volunteer station for Baker County.

"We're trying to help people to be independent and to stay in their own home as long as they can," she said.

Adams, who lived in Baker City as a youngster, returned after retiring from work with a telephone company, most recently Verizon. Adams said she moved back to her childhood home 10 years ago with her daughter immediately after retiring and then headed back to California for a while. She heeded the call to return again last summer and joined the senior companion program almost immediately.

She had volunteered as a senior companion while living at Flagstaff, Ariz., and was eager to join the Baker County program. She originally had planned to sign up as a Meals on Wheels driver before learning that the companion program was available.

The service is provided for no charge and the volunteers receive a small stipend for their service, which ranges from light housekeeping chores to trips to the barber shop or beauty parlor or eating out together for lunch.

"It's so rewarding," Adams says. "I love all my people."

Bennett's affection for Adams was clear as well as the two exchanged friendly banter and traveled to The Dollar Tree for an afternoon shopping trip Wednesday.

Adams has become like family, Bennett says.

"Somebody to talk to, somebody who cares - that means so much," she said. "It's less likely you're going to have depression, it's better for your health and it's somebody you can pick on. You feel a little bit more normal instead of feeling static or trapped."

Bennett has no car, and before the companionship program came into her life, Bennett traveled to shopping trips on the senior bus or called a taxi cab to pick her up and bring her home.

Her limited income is supplemented by food stamps, housing assistance and help from DHS.

"The money she saves me, I can buy food I couldn't normally buy," Bennett says.

And when Adams brings her home, there's the extra bonus of having her groceries delivered right inside her door.

Adams is quick to acknowledge the benefits she receives from serving as a companion for Bennett and the nine others she spends time with each week.

"I feel like I'm getting just as much as they are," she says. "I'm keeping up my social life and it just makes you feel really good.

"It boosts my income, keeps me active, keeps me going and gives me real satisfaction," she said.

The two women share experiences from their lives and even challenge one other to consider a different point of view occasionally.

Bennett grew up in Illinois where she and her two brothers were raised by an aunt and uncle after her parents died when she was 9. One brother died in military service and the other, Elwin Bunnell, will turn 90 soon. He called to check in with her on Wednesday from his home in California.

The two boys were taught to swim by Ronald Reagan in their hometown of Dixon, Ill., Bennett said. And she's crossed paths with other celebrities over the years while living in Nevada and California, including vaudeville star Sophie Tucker, movie tough guy Charles Bronson and television star Buddy Ebsen. And she spent six months in Europe, traveling to 13 different countries. Her working years included employment in banking, accounting, as a telephone operator and in real estate.

But she's happy to have landed in Baker City, she says.

"I love it - the mountains and the river andhellip; " and a friend she can call on anytime.