On any given day, you’ll likely see 78-year-old Ernest Bradbury buzzing around his community of Lubbock, Texas, off to visit the dying in his job as a hospice volunteer. He has helped an estimated 46 hospice patients in the past 11 years, and began volunteering to fill a void after his wife died.
“The key to this volunteering job is to listen, listen, listen,” said the former city employee who has been recognized locally for his hospice work. “I have to soften some up before they will talk. They’re usually lying around with nothing to do. If I can get them to talk it makes them feel better. Then I feel better, too. I once visited a man with a stomach feeding tube, and they said he’d never eat again. But after I got him talking, eventually he was eating JELL-O®. No one could believe it.”
“Sometimes you read to patients, maybe the newspaper, because they can’t talk and you don’t know if they can hear you. But when you get to a funny story, they’ll give you a smile, and it’s worth all the time you put in.”
Respite is one important service he provides to families. “Once I had planned to spend an hour with a patient while his wife ran errands, but she had so much to do it was three hours later when she returned.”
As a widower, Bradbury understands the loneliness that many seniors face. “Sometimes the feelings of loss just don’t go away. When I was first trained as a hospice volunteer, I was told that it’s hard to convince men it’s OK to cry. But men do cry…You know why you’re there, but it still hurts when the patient dies.”’
Commitment to Others Keeps Senior Volunteer ‘Young’
Eighty-year-old Canadian Beverley McClelland, a former public health nurse who managed a staff of 30, hasn’t slowed down since retirement, helping to develop her local aging council, serving on the board of directors for a senior services organization and working on an elder abuse strategy board, to name a few of her volunteer projects.
Regularly working 25 to 30 hours a week, McClelland says that volunteering invigorates her. “Volunteering keeps me young physically and mentally. It helps me to think young, too. It’s amazing to feel the impact you’re having when you’re out there helping people to live better lives.”
Much of her volunteer work focuses on developing senior advocacy and education programs. She has worked with a day hospital that helps seniors regain their mobility from issues like Parkinson’s disease. “When I grew up, seniors were seen and not heard,” she said. “Now we are working with seniors to help them learn how to speak out for their rights.”
Giving means getting something in return, McClelland said. “The energy that I put out as a volunteer comes back to me. It’s amazing how volunteering can change your life. You don’t have to feel down. I can’t imagine what I would do to keep my spirits up if I didn’t volunteer. Depression can be a common outcome for seniors. But it doesn’t have to be. You can contribute to society, keep giving back.
“My niece asks me why I keep an apartment because I’m on the go so much. She said I should just pitch a tent wherever I land at the end of the day.”
92-Year-Old Volunteer Strives to Go on “Forever”
At 92, Ana Ochoa of Omaha, Neb., isn’t one to rest on her laurels. Ochoa, a Cuban immigrant, worked her way up through the banking industry. She retired twice, first as an assistant bank manager at age 67 and then as an assistant bank vice president at age 78. It wasn’t long after retiring that she told her son: “Look for something for me, because I can’t look at the ceiling every day.”
Now, in her ninth decade of life, she still is giving back, contributing more than 1,000 volunteer hours a year.
As it turns out, Ochoa’s commitment is not so unusual. Helping others defines life for many retired seniors, according to Home Instead Senior Care® network research, which reveals that seven in 10 U.S seniors and three in five Canadian seniors who volunteer say they plan on volunteering forever.
For the past 15 years, Ochoa has given her time and talents to Heartland Family Service, providing administrative support at a senior center and knitting items for fundraisers. She also has worked as a hostess in a cancer center and served as a translator for hospice.
“We don’t change who we are when we get older,” said Karen Sides, senior center program director for Heartland Family Service. “Inside we feel the same. If you stay active like Ana does, it helps people respect the aging process and seniors,” she noted.
“If you asked our CEO, he would tell you this is Ana’s main work place,” Karen added. “She’s much like an employee, and this is her home. She doesn’t let that chronological age—or aches and pains—stop her.”
Senior Volunteer Giving More Than Time
Volunteering for the local hospice was a logical fit for Sandra Campbell of North Jackson, Ohio, when she retired from her career as an oncology nurse. So, too, was the hands-on support that she has provided hospice patients in her area for the past five years.
But Campbell, now 71, doesn’t stop there. She makes and donates quilts to the Oncology Fund for Outpatients to raise money to help cover the extra costs of cancer patients. “I love making things for the oncology care fund that donates to patients for gas and groceries. I have donated a lot to them.”
Campbell is one of many senior volunteers willing to put her money and resources where her heart is. According to research conducted by the Home Instead Senior Care® network, a majority of senior volunteers donate financially to the organizations where they volunteer.
And the help couldn’t come at a better time. In a survey released in July 2009 by the Corporation for National and Community Service, one of every three organizations reported increasing its reliance on volunteers to cope with the economic downturn between September 2008 and March 2009.
Sandra also knows how important support can be to seniors and their families. “Mary, a 92-year-old patient in hospice, had a really bad heart attack, and doctors didn’t think she was going to live long,” Sandra explained. “I provided companionship support, and she received one of my quilts. She steadily improved and was discharged from hospice.”
Today, Sandra is still visiting Mary, now 96. “She didn’t want me to stop visiting, even after she got better. I have a little dog that I take with me on visits, and she loves it. It’s very satisfying to know you’re helping someone and making their life better as the end of their life approaches.”
‘Getting Up and Giving Back’
Volunteering gives 85-year-old Don Buck—a World War II veteran and longtime United Way executive director—a reason to get up, and give back, each morning. “Hey friend, it’s like paying rent on the space you occupy. There are no free rides. I just don’t want to sit around and vegetate.”
So Don of Las Cruces, N.M., is active through his local Rotary Club as well, the Conquistadores, who serve as goodwill ambassadors for the local Chamber of Commerce.
“It would be pretty easy to lie around all day, but volunteering gives me a good reason to get up in the morning. Breakfast gets me started, and then I just go from there. I have macular degeneration, but I can still drive during daylight hours, so I keep busy.”
As it turns out, volunteering comes with benefits. Ninety-five percent of senior volunteers surveyed feel that seniors who volunteer are healthier and happier than those who do not, according to research conducted by the Home Instead Senior Care® network.
Like many volunteers, Don also knows what it’s like to care for a senior loved one. He cared for his wife for more than six years before she died. What’s more, he sought professional caregiving assistance so that he could keep volunteering. “A Home Instead CAREGiverSM came every day so my wife could stay at home and I could continue to volunteer,” he said.
Volunteering can provide that much-needed sense of normalcy and keep family caregivers doing what makes them happy. Support—sometimes in the way of a professional caregiving service—makes that possible every day for so many family caregivers.
Volunteering Prescription for Pain Relief
For the past 15 years, Pauline Grace of Harper Woods, Mich., has provided a wealth of services to her local senior’s group, Services for Older Citizens, a volunteer organization of 400. She updates computer lists, answers the telephones, stuffs envelopes, calls bingo games, delivers bread to local seniors, and helps organize teas and parties.
Like many veteran volunteers, this 77-year-old feels fulfilled. She also credits volunteerism with helping manage the pain she lives with daily. “I have fibromyalgia, and my neck and back hurt at times,” she said.
“When I am active, I forget about it. Often when I get home, I think, ‘Oh, my gosh, I got through the whole day without feeling the pain.’ I don’t like to tell others about the pain, and it isn’t horrible. But I think volunteering helps me with it.”
It appears that volunteering may pay special dividends for seniors who have chronic health conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, depression, high blood pressure, dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
An estimated 75 percent of U.S. seniors and 86 percent of Canadian seniors with chronic pain say that staying active through volunteering helps them manage these conditions, according to research conducted by the Home Instead Senior Care® network.
The emotional benefits of volunteering also are particularly relevant for seniors with chronic conditions. For example, 77 percent of seniors with chronic conditions say an important reason they volunteer is to overcome feeling depressed, compared with 63 percent of seniors without chronic conditions.
Senior volunteer Pauline agrees. “It’s a pleasure to volunteer. I don’t know if I could just sit around at home and do nothing. I think that would depress me, if I had to stay home without anything to do day in and day out.”