Mary Kulpa and Linda Butler are a team. Kulpa is an energetic mother, grandmother and great-grandmother who lives alone on the Westside. Butler is a friendly, inquisitive young woman of 20.
Butler is also developmentally disabled--physically healthy but limited in her ability to learn.
Under Kulpa's tutelage, Butler is learning how to do various household chores. Eventually she hopes to share an apartment with Melissa Bartosh, a childhood friend.
Butler and Kulpa met through the Daniel Freeman Hospitals' 3-year-old Companion Program, which provides assistance and companionship for elderly people while helping developmentally disabled young adults learn new skills.
The program, initially funded with a grant from the state Department of Rehabilitation, does not provide a salary for the companions. But it does give them their first opportunity to move away from home and learn how to take care of themselves, according to Sue Kacy, who conducts orientation classes for both the companions and the elderly.
At Joslyn Park in Santa Monica recently, the classroom topic of the day was "What you have always wanted to know about an older adult but were always afraid to ask."
The participants included six young men and women and two senior citizens. When the young people asked one of the seniors, named Thelma, what she liked to do, Thelma said that she loved to read.
Leaning forward eagerly, a young man in his early 20s, exclaimed, "Do you like to read a lot? Then you can help me to read--if you read all the time."
At another point, the same young man addressed Thelma as "Grandma." Thelma, who graduated from USC 50 years ago and raised a family, didn't miss a beat. She just answered his question.
The youthful companions are referred to the program by churches, the state rehabilitation department and by word of mouth, according to Wendy Wolfe, director of the program. The senior participants are referred by churches, hospitals and senior citizens' programs.
Must Meet Criteria
The seniors must be over 55, and the companions must be over 18 and have a developmental disability. Neither may have a history of anti-social behavior, Wolfe said.
"Instead of just getting companions and seniors together, we go through an intensive matching process," Wolfe said. "We consider where they live, whether they have allergies, a dog or a laid-back personality.
"Participants meet in an orientation session, six times in two weeks. That's where they get a chance to know each other and their roles and responsibilities."
When the orientation ends, Wolfe said each companion is asked which senior they would like to work with. A meeting is then set up between companion and senior with a trainer such as Kacy in attendance. At that session, the three determine what kinds of services will be exchanged.
Companions may work anywhere from three hours a day to three days a week and Wolfe said about 15% of them work on a live-in basis. According to Wolfe, more than 50 partnerships, lasting from 30 to 180 days, have been created.
The young people come into the program with high hopes.
Brian Bialick, 29, is eager to be a companion. "I would help (the elderly) with their shopping, housework, whatever they need," he said. "I would go places with them and make sure they got to their appointments. I can cook."
Has Attended Classes
Bialick has experienced more independence than some of the other companions and has learned how to budget his money, do his laundry and cook his meals.
Like most of the others, Bialick has attended special classes provided by the city, county and state at various schools. He has done volunteer work at senior citizen nutrition centers and has worked in maintenance at a Tarzana medical center.
Merrill Kalin, 21, said she could help an older person with the grocery shopping and could play games with them. "If they have something on their mind and want to talk I will be there, waiting for them to do it."
Greta Goldstone, 18, will live with a woman named Dotty.
"I love being in this program," Goldstone said. "I have not been a companion before. I will just do whatever I can to help her."
She has worked with deaf children at a local elementary school and she has been helping out at home where she baby-sits for her 6-year-old brother.
"I hope to move up in the world," she said, "get a paying job, live away. I will try to continue my education if I can." She is studying living skills at Santa Monica College.
Daughter Loves Her Job
Linda Butler's friend, Melanie Bartosh, 21, is also in the program and her mother, Myra, is enthusiastic about her daughter's participation.
"My daughter is very enthusiastic," Myra Bartosh said. "She loves the idea of having the type of job where she is useful. She has enjoyed meeting older people and she has learned about nutrition, housekeeping, helping people in wheelchairs and managing in emergencies.