Irene Nolan and Nora Rigby have a lot in common, beginning with their age: 86.

They both spent time in Wyoming, Irene as a bride and Nora as a teacher. Neither is crazy about television, although they love keeping up on current affairs. Both love baseball. Nolan collects pictures of players, Rigby admires them. They are widowed and have lived in Salt Lake City for more than four decades.They've known each other three months. And in that time, they've become the best of friends.

Nolan is a Salt Lake County senior companion, part of an 18-month-old pilot project for visually impaired senior citizens. She regularly visits three people, including Rigby.

The Senior Companion Program pairs people who are at least 60 with other senior citizens who have trouble getting out and about. The special project adds the requirement that the volunteer be visually impaired, like Nolan, who is legally blind. Senior companions must have an income low enough to qualify for the program.

Then, in exchange for their time, they receive a free physical examination, a non-taxable stipend, lunch and travel reimbursement. They also have paid vacation time and sick leave. Each companion receives intensive training and a four-hour monthly training course.

The year that brought them together was one of great personal change and sorrow. Nolan lost her beloved son in an accident. And one July day, still grieving, she walked into program assistant Deanna Foxley's office and said, "Put me to work - I have to get my mind on other things."

Rigby was moving into a retirement center, leaving the home she'd loved for 46 years. She was lonely. She didn't know anyone in her new home. And a friend from her church asked Foxley if she had a program that could help.

The two women also have significant differences. Irene Nolan is very mobile, but she has difficulty seeing. Nora Rigby sees well, with glasses or contact lenses, but can hardly get around.

A visit to these two means sitting on a couch and "talking a mile a minute. We both love to talk," Rigby said.

Nolan added: "Or a talk on the telephone. We spend even more time on the telephone."

It's not a job for Nolan any more. In a very short time, she and Rigby have become dear friends.

They have fascinating backgrounds. Rigby taught all grades in a country school, then focused on the third grade in a city school. Finally, she worked in the children's room at the public library in Salt Lake City. She has two great-grandchildren now, although no relatives locally.

Nolan started out as a young woman with the phone company, then opened a travel agency in 1945. She was a hand model and a beautician. She is a great-great-grandmother.

But they don't talk about the past much. Where they're going is less interesting, they think, than the here and now. So they sit side by side on the couch, so close they're touching, and exchange their ideas on the ways of the world. That, they say, is what friendship is.

Salt Lake County Aging is looking for other volunteer senior companions, particularly visually impaired companions. To find out about the program, call 468-2485.