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‘Computer guys’ form 10-year friendship through Senior Companion Program

Published: Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

(Continued from Page 1)

Before Greg Mate, the only person Henry Mittermayer could look forward to seeing regularly was the mailman.

Mittermayer and Mate were paired together through a Senior Companion Program that matches volunteers with seniors in need of visitors.

That was 10 years ago, and the friendship is still going strong. It's one of the Senior Service program's longest lasting matches.

"When you're homebound, you really appreciate someone coming around once in awhile to sit and chat," said Mittermayer, 73, of McHenry, who is legally blind.

Their friendship has withstood numerous life changes for both men, including each of their marriages and the birth of Mate's three children.

Mate usually comes after work, and the two talk current events, tell life stories and fix computers together. Mittermayer enjoyed traveling as a young man, and Mate now travels often for his job.

They both share a love of computers, Mittermayer having once restored them for Senior Services and Mate employed in information technology.

"He's a computer guy like me," Mittermayer said. "What he doesn't know, I know. What I don't know, he knows."

Based in McHenry, the Senior Companion Program has 71 matches, and has matched hundreds of seniors since Senior Services took it over about 18 years ago. The program always is looking to make more matches, said Jackie Smith, senior companion program coordinator.

Carefully screened volunteers are matched with seniors who've requested weekly visitors to prevent isolation and loneliness. It's designed for those seniors who live alone in their homes.

Funded by the United Way, the Mental Health Resource League and the McHenry County Senior Referendum, the program is free to seniors.

The pairs either get together at the homebound senior's home or go out for lunch, dinner, a movie, whatever they choose, Smith said.

"We have far more seniors looking for a companion," she said. "We look for conversational people, people that are open-minded. We want seniors to know the program is out there and available."

Only one or two pairings have lasted a decade, Smith said

"I think that's huge," she said.

Mittermayer sought out the program after the death of his first wife.

While friends with Mate, he met the woman who would be his second wife. Having volunteered as a "phone companion" for homebound seniors, he'd call other seniors – "too many to count" – just to chat. He said he'd hit it off more with the ladies than the men.

He chatted for four years on the phone with Helen Book, now 93, before meeting her several years ago and almost immediately proposing marriage. The two met in person for the first time at a Senior Service event, a Hawaiian luau.

"Helen was love at first sight," Mittermayer said. "When we got together, I asked her if I could give her a hug. I gave her a hug, and that was it."

Amid the story, Smith stressed that Senior Services is not designed as a dating service.

"What can we say? Henry's pretty charming," she said with a laugh.

The couple moved in together in 2011, but Helen suffered a stroke last year and is now in a nursing home. Friends take Mittermayer to visit her weekly.

On a recent visit, Mate pointed out the computer room where he and Mittermayer often hang out. When his health was better, Mittermayer enjoyed refurbishing computers so other seniors could learn on them at Senior Services.

"He doesn't work on them as much as he used to," Mate said.

Mate volunteered for Senior Services a few years before meeting Mittermayer just to do his part for the community, he said. Back then, he was single.

His life evolved with the addition of his family, but he said he never plans to stop volunteering. He enjoys Mittermayer's perspective, as the senior is from the same generation as his parents, he said.

"I don't get here as often as I'd like. It still worked out to be a good pairing," he said, encouraging others to volunteer.

"It doesn't take too much of your time. There are people who don't see anyone for long periods of time. Just to go see them can lift their spirits. I'm out in the working world and see people every day. You take it for granted."

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