Older Americans Month 2017
Age Out Loud: Volunteer
In higher numbers than ever before, older Americans are using their skills, wisdom, and talents to serve their communities. Not only does giving back help others, volunteers find that they benefit too. Check out these real stories of people working to improve the lives of their fellow community members.
Thirty-five years in corporate management and business ownership taught me the importance of communication and listening carefully. Motherhood and marriage taught me patience and love. Caregiving for my mother with Alzheimer’s disease strengthened feelings of empathy and acceptance. Appreciation for all my life’s blessings compelled me to volunteer and give back. I wanted to work in some meaningful way, utilizing all my skills, knowledge, experience, and life lessons.
Now in my fourth year as a volunteer ombudsman in nursing homes, my greatest joy is giving a voice to men and women whose voices have been diminished by age, sickness, or disability. I advocate for their rights, listen to their concerns, and investigate and resolve their complaints. I seek to secure for them the dignity, respect, and quality of care they deserve. All the skills and qualities I accumulated—communication, listening, patience, love, empathy, caring, acceptance—help me immeasurably.
“Age Out Loud” is exactly what I desire for the residents I serve: the ability to speak out, to make themselves heard, and to be seen for the valuable individuals they are. For those contemplating retirement life, I hope they find the rewarding service of being a volunteer ombudsman.
Being a volunteer ombudsman has been a very special experience. I have learned so much about working with people with memory issues through training offered by my local Area Agency on Aging, the information that is sent to us via email about the many different aspects of elder care, and listening to talks by professionals. Most moving to me, however, is working with the individuals dealing with memory issues. I have seen how my presence, hugs, listening, and advocacy makes a difference in the residents’ well-being. I have learned that a smile or touch of the hand can immediately strike a chord of calm and interest in an individual's demeanor. Learning to negotiate the difficulties of this work is well worth hearing a “Hi” on occasion, walking with a resident friend around the facility, or listening to stories that residents want to share.
I am proud to be an ombudsman for those in elder care facilities. It makes me a better person, increasing my ability to love and learn compassion and understanding. I am grateful to be aging now as opposed to 50 years ago. When I was young, facilities were overcrowded and only basic needs were met. I am grateful for the organizations we have today that focus on continued advocacy, research, improvements, and solutions.
What does “Age Out Loud” mean to me? It means ACTION: getting out into my community to interact, advocate, and educate myself and others about how to create the best possible world for our elders.
To me, “Age Out Loud” means that our seniors refuse to be stereotyped as sitting in a rocking chair doing nothing. They want to exercise, enjoy book clubs, play mahjong and other games that engage their brains, go to plays, and interact with people in the community. They want to feel useful, active, and involved. Seniors today travel more and stay employed longer. People are living longer and want their minds and bodies to be challenged. And they want to be heard.
I would call it divine intervention that I ended up as an ombudsman. One of my colleagues was getting ready to retire and I happened to ask her about her plans. She was going to become an ombudsman at a facility. It sounded fascinating to me, and like something I would like to do in retirement. I really wanted to encourage the older population to have a new voice and a more positive lifestyle.
As an ombudsman, one of my joys is to see the growth of our resident council. I have lobbied hard to get our residents to advocate for themselves and voice their opinions. I have been teaching residents that it is important to speak up if they have concerns, and to make sure they are not ignored. It is a wonderful feeling to know that each time I visit the facility, I can help someone in need. I hope that other people volunteer to do this important work in their communities. We need the eyes and ears of every volunteer to assist in making our facilities for older adults and people with disabilities safe and stimulating places to live.
—Lynn, New York
Elmer and Louise were teachers at Minneapolis Community College for more than 25 years. They both have a passion for learning and teaching, and it is serving them well in retirement.
Elmer began studying alternative medicine based on interests he had in his early 20’s. To share his experiences with others, Elmer provides classes at local centers and clubs, and has established quite a following. His interests don’t stop there. He plays saxophone with various bands, dabbles in family genealogy and photography, and presents about teaching to various entities. Elmer has also served as a Township supervisor, County Historical Society board member, and hospice volunteer.
Elmer also took up the harmonica and brought Louise to an international harmonica convention. Inspired by the possibilities of harmonica in various music genres, she was hooked. When they moved south in Minnesota they brought their love of harmonica to Winona Friendship Center and started a harmonica band, and later teamed up with a respiratory therapist to offer classes for people with COPD, whose breathing capacity can be helped by playing harmonica.
Meanwhile, Louise has been busy with business and tax classes, and provided AARP Tax Assistance to people with low incomes. She has also worked as a Master Gardener for her county and state, volunteered at a local hospital and an arts museum, ushered for Shakespeare plays, and served on four nonprofit committees.
Louise and Elmer say, “everyone should be in a lifelong learning [mindset]. Keep learning, keep the brain active. Learn new things. The real reason for life is it’s a learning experience. We are here to learn.”
—Winona Friendship Center, MN
Helen is 90 years old, and she “loves talking about aging!” Her commitment to volunteerism spans over several decades. It is how she defines herself—part of a larger community where people rely on each other. It is also why she characterizes herself as a person who is respectful of all cultures.
A couple of years ago, she retired after five years as a volunteer co-producer and co-host of Senior Beat, a cable television program “of, by, and for older adults,” sponsored by the Madison Senior Center in Wisconsin. Helen says the program offered her many opportunities to meet interesting people, learn about issues affecting the older adult community, and develop interviewing and television production skills. She still wears her producer hat off camera by suggesting compelling stories to the program.
Helen enjoys the University of Wisconsin’s continuing education classes at the Senior Center, preferring to focus on politics, philosophy, and art. She says these classes provide her with the means to continue learning and growing, and they are fertile ground to develop friendships.
As a lifelong activist, Helen is not afraid to seek political reform. The city of Madison provides a perfect environment for meaningful and direct involvement across the spectrum—from politics to art to learning. It is not unusual to see Helen holding a sign and marching at the Wisconsin State Capitol or other locations, when she believes an injustice has been done.
To Helen, the definition of successful living emphasizes being present in the moment. Being interested, active, and engaged in her community are vital components of her life and successful aging.
—Madison Senior Center, WI
Jean was a physical therapist for several years with the local Visiting Nurse Association. When its medical equipment loaner program closed, it left a huge gap for people in need. Jean knew the value of short-term medical equipment. She had witnessed people buying wheelchairs, walkers, and other costly items that were thrown out or put in the attic after they were used. Recently retired, Jean was drawn to the Granby Connecticut Senior Center’s Civic Engagement Team’s missionto utilize the talents, wisdom, and expertise of older adults in ways that benefit their communities. With so much waste of equipment, but at the same time so much need for it, bridging this gap seemed the solution. Jean approached the Civic Engagement Team with the idea to create a durable medical loaner closet.
Jean took on the loaner closet with passion and drive, right from the start. Not only is she always on top of the project, she is constantly looking for ways to connect with partners...learning how to find equipment, where to donate excess equipment, and where to find funding. Jean secured a donation from the local Lions Club that allowed for the purchase of new high-demand items in the loaner closet.
Every day, calls are received from people in need of or who wish to donate medical equipment. Their stories vary but their needs are similar—to stay independent for as long as possible. A common theme is adults who are taking care of aging parents and need a wheelchair, walker, or other equipment.
In 2013, the Civic Engagement Team won the Program of Excellence Award by the Connecticut Association of Senior Center Personnel. The Center won the award in the “leadership, civic engagement, and community development” category for the loaner closet. Now in its fifth year, the Durable Medical Equipment Loaner Closet continues to be successful by the efforts and dedication of volunteers.
—Granby Connecticut Senior Centers, CT
Wilma joined the Metro Atlanta Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) in 2011. A retired corporate trainer and office manager, Wilma found retirement boring. With RSVP, she discovered much more than a way to “stay busy.” It’s a meaningful way to engage with others and meet the critical needs of her community. “Too many older adults in the Atlanta metro area simply don’t know where to go when they need help or services; they don’t what resources are available or how to obtain them. Through RSVP, I can help point the way and I love it!”
Wilma’s background in training and management has led to positive impacts for RSVP, its volunteers, and the communities it serves. As a member of the Curriculum Review Committee, Wilma developed a more user-friendly format that helps speakers to be less reliant on PowerPoint presentations. She also proposed speaker evaluation form changes to better measure audience engagement. Wilma conducts train-the-trainer classes for volunteers on several topics, including personal health records, clinical preventive services, and healthy sexuality for seniors. She coaches newer volunteers, helping them build confidence. Her commitment to excellence has inspired others to aim for the same high standard.
Wilma consistently seeks out opportunities that promote better health and greater independence for her peers. She’s made it her business to be familiar with all community topics and has done more than 300 presentations at churches, senior residences and centers, libraries, and schools on a variety of health and wellness topics. In recognition of her exceptional service, Wilma received a Volunteer of the Year Award in 2014. As of this writing, she has contributed more than 1,600 hours to RSVP.
—Metro Atlanta RSVP, GA
Humphrey, 68 years old, joined the Impact Broward—Senior Companion Program in 2009. He says he enjoys volunteering and finds that helping others is very rewarding and gratifying. Humphrey’s commitment to the Program demonstrates the true meaning of being a dedicated Senior Companion. He visits his clients five days a week, offering unfailing love and attention as he assists them with tasks like preparing a meal, reading mail, going for a walk, and playing games. Most importantly, Humphrey encourages his clients to be independent.
One of Humphrey’s clients shared comments about the difference his weekly visits make:
“After my wife Eileen passed, I was now all alone and needed companionship, friendship...and realized that growing old is not easy, but when you have individuals like Humphrey who is generous with his time and dedicated to making a difference in the lives of the elderly, it makes a world of difference.”
The two men have long conversations about their native country, Jamaica, as well as history and current events. The client says that he has developed a friendship with Humphrey, whom he calls his “adopted son.”
As of 2017, Humphrey has provided more than 6,000 volunteer hours. Last year, he received the Volunteer of the Year (Heart of the Community) Award for his service.
—Impact Broward, FL
Bruce Morgenstern is a retired engineer with an interest in giving back. As an engineer, with a history of solving problems and educating others, the State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) is a perfect fit. There is no one-size-fits-all health care insurance solution for our aging and disabled population, and Medicare‘s complexity poses a challenge to many seniors. “Working through the maze of regulations and exceptions allows me to use my logic-based engineering skills, and I get great satisfaction watching a client transform from an overwhelmed individual into someone who is much more comfortable moving forward. Plus, I get paid in hugs and smiles — what could be better?” says this very energized volunteer.
—Anne Arundel County, MD
Sue Ann Grier has been a State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) volunteer for eight years in Cecil County, Maryland. She is indispensable when it comes to SHIP Medicare Annual Open Enrollment activities. Sue proved to be an irreplaceable asset when the new SHIP Coordinator, Laura Miller began her tenure four years ago. As Laura shared with us, “When Sue called me to volunteer during open enrollment, it was I who had all of the questions!” Sue sensed Laura’s concern and apprehension and calmly replied, “I will teach you how to manage open enrollment.” Laura further professes, “She was not only my fairy godmother, but also my guardian angel.” Sue went on to teach the new SHIP Coordinator how to manage large numbers of Medicare beneficiaries requesting SHIP services; how to manage time; how to stay calm when the office becomes frantic; and how to deal with people who were confused, exhausted, and frustrated in their search for help. Laura exclaims, “She is my rock.” Sue and Laura have now managed four Medicare Annual Open Enrollment seasons, together. And, we hear that in her spare time, Sue makes a wicked pound cake. Cecile County and the Maryland SHIP salute Sue Ann Grier for her time, expertise, and dedication.
—Cecil County, MD