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Working With the Elderly

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At Wellington Park Nursing Home volunteers of all ages assist Alzheimer's patients by spending time with them. They read, play checkers with those who remember the rules of the game, and just talk. The volunteers often bring small gifts to the patients they visit regularly.

And while some patients might not remember the volunteer from one visit until the next, the time each volunteer spends means each patient will have positive, personal interaction. This is something for which the patients, and the families of the patients, are very grateful.

A person who chooses to volunteer by working with the elderly will likely spend time reading to or visiting with the senior. The volunteer may even help by being a companion on an outing to the mall or the doctor's office. Or for those who can drive, volunteering with the elderly may mean driving them places to do errands.

Many organizations offer the opportunity to volunteer by helping with the elderly. One such organization, Little Brothers -- Friends of the Elderly, coordinates volunteer activities all over the world. But there are many other organizations that have opportunities with the elderly. In some cases, you can go directly to a nursing home or assisted living community to find volunteer positions.

"Working with people who have lived full lives and seeing how they continue to fight to be independent is inspirational," says Cathie Peterman. She is a Volunteer of America (VOA) volunteer in New Orleans. "They have lived through stuff none of us will ever go through -- First World War, Second World War, no TV. I whine a lot less after a day of volunteering with them."

Volunteering with the elderly will give you a closer look into the past. It will also give you the opportunity to touch a person who may be frustrated with the disabilities that come with age. And the appreciation you will receive for your small investment of time is more than you can imagine.

As our population ages, more and more volunteers are going to be needed. According to the United Nations Secretariat, approximately 33 percent of the population in both the U.S. and Canada was above the age of 60 in 1999. That number is expected to rise by 17 percent until 2010.

Pamela Hawley says that volunteering for her is a matter of the heart. "It is amazing the perspective on life that volunteering gives me. I see these people who have lived through decades, and they all have different stories to offer," she says.

"The stories they have to tell remind me of how lucky I am to have the things I do. I have gained their wisdom and insight. I have had first-hand lessons in history, and I have made friendships I never thought I could make."

Working with the elderly has taught her a few things. "I've also had to sharpen skills like patience, willingness to learn and compassion. But in return for improving those skills, I've been continually amazed by older adults who have persevered through the stages of aging, and still they continue on. It helps me to realize the most important thing is giving and responding to love."

John Marsch, a 17-year-old volunteer, spends one to two days a week volunteering with the elderly. "The people I spend time with live by themselves, so they are always glad to see me coming. It's nice to know they look forward to our visits," he says.

"I've read to them, and just talked with them. It's fun to hear the stories they tell. Like one man, he has stories about wars and growing up without electricity or running water," says Marsch. "I listen to his stories, then ask questions about details he left out, like what school was like then. I always learn something from his answers, and it's interesting to imagine life then."

But Marsch says it's more than just learning about the past. "When I go to visit my friends, I admire their lives. They have worked so hard, and given so much to their communities. They teach me about the past, and they teach me about myself sometimes. I guess this is just my way of giving it back."

Peterman volunteers along with her son. Together, they "spend time serving meals, cleaning and painting homes for the elderly, visiting with them and helping with parties," she says.

"The goal of VOA is to uplift all people. I do so with the seniors and myself, and I always feel they did more for me than I for them," she says. "It also allows my son, whose grandma is in Chicago, to interact with seniors and get some of their wisdom and attention."

But Peterman's son has learned about more than just the wisdom that older adults can have. "He plans to major in history. He became friends with an elderly resident who has taught him the importance of first source documents by sharing her life as an African-American woman in the South. He will always remember to get true life reports before coming to conclusions."

Overall, Peterman says the experience has helped her and her son to grow. "Volunteering connects all segments of the community. Seniors need to share their experience of a lifetime -- it validates them. And we need to a wider perspective and some grounding in real-life struggles."

How to Get Involved

Getting involved in volunteer activities with the elderly is as easy as contacting your local nursing home or retirement community. Give them a call. There are plenty of ways you can help out, regardless of your age.

If your area doesn't have a nursing home or retirement community, try contacting some other organizations.


Little Brothers -- Friends of the Elderly
40528 E Jackson Blvd.
Chicago , IL   60604

Volunteers of America
1660 Duke St.
Alexandria , VA   22314


Volunteer Opportunities for Teens
Links about volunteering and how to get involved

The International Year of Older Persons
The United Nations Secretariat declared 1999 the International Year of Older Persons

Giving and Volunteering
Another guide explaining why you should get involved and how to do it

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