Paying the bills is a bit easier for seniors, thanks to volunteer advisers Group offers help managing money HOWARD COUNTY SENIORS

February 03, 1993|By Dolly Merritt | Dolly Merritt,Contributing Writer

Helen Wells used to make frequent trips to the bank because she couldn't remember to whom she wrote checks or the amounts. Mental illness made it difficult for her, a single senior citizen with no family, to manage her finances.

Today, such bank visits aren't necessary, thanks to a volunteer organization called the Representative Payee Program. It was created to help seniors and adults with physical or mental disabilities and limited incomes. The group makes sure the bills of Ms. Wells (not her real name) and others are paid and their bank accounts are in good shape.

The program was established by the state but is overseen through the county Social Services Department. It matches volunteers with adults who qualify for help.

"We take care of all the 'survival' bills like food, shelter and clothing," said Claudia Robertson, one of two volunteer coordinators who manage the Howard County program. "We want the client to maintain as much independence as possible."

Without this help, she said, some might have to live in a nursing home or under a restrictive guardianship.

In Maryland, the program began in 1984 and is available in Baltimore and 11 counties. The Howard County program is only 16 months old and has grown from one client and six volunteers to seven clients and 13 volunteers.

To qualify, a person must receive some sort of public assistance and be unable to handle her own finances.

Ms. Robertson said all of the group's clients are referred through county agencies such as the Department of Mental Health or the Office on Aging.

"The only skill required of volunteers is to be able to handle money and to keep good records," Ms. Robertson said. The volunteers include teachers, accountants, government workers and a Kmart employee. They are governed by a 12-member advisory board that includes a clergyman, an attorney, representatives from community service agencies and a representative from the James Rouse Co.

Pam Davis, 35, an accountant who lives in Columbia, has been a volunteer for more than a year. Since May 1992, her skills have helped a resident of a nursing home in Columbia.

"She is a wonderful person; she

has some slight mental illness and wanted to know how to budget her money," Ms. Davis said.

She meets with the woman about every two weeks to help her with paying bills. And she makes sure the $60 a month left over is set aside for the woman's personal expenses, such as entertainment or clothing.

Sometimes Ms. Davis extends her visit to chat. Other times, it's a short meeting to drop off some money on the way to her job in Bethesda.

"Even if you don't develop a friendship, you are providing something to improve their life. If a friendship develops, that's great," she said. "She's a neat lady -- a cute, little grandmotherly type. She is a pleasure to be around and she is very accepting of any [money] decisions I may make. . . . It's easy to think that everybody in the Columbia area has a lot of money. Not everybody does."

Training programs for volunteers are offered once a month at the

Meeting House in the Oakland Mills Village Center and are sponsored by the Columbia Baptist Fellowship. Ms. Robertson and co-coordinator Thelma Spence learned about the program through their membership in a fellowship volunteer group, and they offered to coordinate it.

Both women train volunteers to prepare budgets, balance checkbooks, keep accurate records and set up direct-deposit accounts. The volunteers then monitor their client's financial needs and, with the client's funds, pay bills and make purchases for them.

"Depending on how much money is left, some clients are given weekly or monthly allowances," Ms. Robertson said.

The program requires clients to open a joint checking account with the volunteer who works with them.

After completing a questionnaire about their willingness to work with clients, the volunteers are matched.

"The volunteer contacts the [county] case manager, who works with the particular client, who, in turn, introduces the client to the volunteer. If the client and volunteer agree that they can work together, they are a completed match," Ms. Robertson said.

She says volunteers spend at least four to six hours each month with their clients.

Program information

For information about the Representative Payee Program or to volunteer, call the Columbia Baptist Fellowship, 730-2026.

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