Jennifer Abernathy—Tennessee Respite Coalition

Updated: Apr 13, 2020

A Win-Win-Win Opportunity—Tennessee Respite Coalition

If you’ve ever flown, you’ve likely heard the airline’s instruction that, in the case of an emergency and the oxygen mask drops, you are to put yours on before assisting someone else. For people whose natural inclination is to help others, the directive seems harsh, but it’s a lifesaver because unless you take care of yourself, you will soon run out of oxygen, which is crucial for you to function. Without it, you will not be able to help someone else in need.

That truth motivated the formation of the Tennessee Respite Coalition in the 1990’s. The organization gives the gift of time for caregivers to take care of themselves, providing a bit of relief from the extraordinary and intensive demands of providing ongoing care. The services are for caregivers of patients anywhere on the whole life span and include a statewide helpline, vouchers to reimburse some of the costs of caregiving, and the Senior Companionship Program.

As “companions” these volunteers do not administer medications, provide any physical rehabilitation activities, or assist with transfer. Rather, they are “what the doctor ordered” for loneliness. They may simply come to talk, to play cards or other games, or to accompany a patient on a special outing. They are friends who care. Their cheery presence gives the fulltime caregiver—family member or professional—a break and the patient some welcome social interaction.

To be a Senior Companion requires meeting three criteria: Being friendly, being 55 years old or older, and being under the federal guidelines for income. The companions receive a small stipend from the Corporation for National and Community Service. The income cap assures that older adults with limited financial resources themselves can benefit also through giving of their service to others. The program is a win-win-win! The patient, the caregiver, and the Companion all gain.

But Jennifer Abernathy, the volunteer coordinator, hears from the Companions in their monthly meeting. They talk about the relationships with the people they serve—not the stipend—as what keeps them coming back. Those monthly meetings also provide continuous training for the volunteers and regular counseling for them, as well, because they too experience grief when their new friends die. One consolation for the volunteers is often the outpouring of thanks from the family as they recognize the gift of friendship the Senior Companion has given to their loved one.

Caring and being cared for are both the essential “oxygen” that enables the Senior Companions to help others.

In Tennessee, for more information visit

Nationwide, as well as in Tennessee, for more information about Senior Companions and other opportunities, visit Look under Senior Corps and then go to Senior Programs.

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