8: The Accidental Volunteer

8: The Accidental Volunteer

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

The Accidental Volunteer

Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.

~Victor Hugo

My sister Rose had suffered from mental and emotional problems for many years. She was ten years older than me and she had lived with my parents since she became ill. She managed her own physical needs and did simple household tasks, but she needed my parents to provide structure. When they died, she became my responsibility.

At age sixty-six, Rose moved to the city where I lived with my family. We found a wonderful place for her to live — The Gardens Assisted Living Facility. She was thrilled.

“Oh! It’s like a wonderland,” Rose had exclaimed as we entered a spacious foyer. The living room and dining room were airy and welcoming. Everything sparkled, and so did Rose’s eyes! It was a new facility where residents each had individual apartments. The common areas included a lovely dining room and living room, as well as an activities room, library and outdoor courtyard. An aviary covered one wall of the living room; the chirping and tweeting that greeted us made the room especially inviting. Rose moved in the following week.

I was relieved. With our busy work schedules and two of our five children still at home, I couldn’t imagine Rose moving in with us. The Gardens had opened just in time. Rose loved the place, and it was close enough for me to visit often.

And that was a problem. Yes, I could visit easily. But to what purpose? After the first few minutes, Rose withdrew into her private world and our conversation fizzled out. I don’t know if she was uncomfortable with silences, but I was. Sometimes I brought craft projects to engage us for a while. Or I took her out to lunch, also a short-term distraction. Sometimes we joined other residents for the weekly Bingo session or for current affairs discussions. But mostly I sat in her apartment and, after a few minutes of chitchat, stared at the walls or the floor as she became increasingly oblivious to my presence.

Then one day I had an idea. “Rose, would you mind if I ask the activities director whether I can bring my guitar once a week and have a sing-along for the residents?”

Her eyes lit up. “I think she would appreciate that. And the other residents would like it. Music brightens the days here.”

I knew Rose would enjoy it, too. She relished showing off by having something others didn’t. And a sister who could sing and play the guitar would certainly qualify.

I broached the subject with my husband. His response was definitely not positive.

“Will the activities director expect you to be available on the weekly schedule long term? Do you want that big a commitment? Won’t you get sick of performing every week?”

“I can always find an excuse to back out. But it beats sitting there staring at Rose. I’ll keep my guitar picking skills honed, if nothing else.”

Erin, the activities director, welcomed my offer to visit every week to perform folk songs and lead a sing-along. Thus began my twenty-year volunteer stint at The Gardens. Erin named it Toni-Time, and that name persisted through a number of directors after her. I suspended visiting for a few years when we moved to the Texas Gulf Coast to escape winter, but we missed the Ozark hills and changing seasons, so we returned to Missouri. I resumed my weekly sing-alongs. Rose was delighted and so were the other residents. And so was I! Living away, I realized that my singing sessions at the Gardens were fun, rewarding times for me, too. Sometimes I wondered why the residents seemed so eager about Toni-Time every Monday.

“You’re the best activity we have!” enthused Linda.

“Yes. We love when you come and sing, and we love you too,” said Elise as she beamed.

“They like you so much because you remember their names,” said Sandy, one of the nursing assistants.

I started to add to the sing-alongs. I told stories occasionally or asked trivia questions. Sometimes we recalled favorite Christmas memories or what our first grade classes were like. And we found we still remembered our teachers’ names! We sang. We reminisced. We laughed. And when we needed it, we cried together.

I reminded my husband that his concerns were unfounded and that I was right as usual. “See! I knew it would work out. I love performing. The residents enjoy my visits and Rose knows I’ve come to see her. She’s especially pleased that she can brag to new residents about the singer being HER sister.”

Rose died five years ago at age eighty-six. She was at peace, and so was I: I’d fulfilled my responsibility.

For a time after Rose passed away I spent Mondays doing whatever I wanted to do. No obligations. No commitments. Only freedom. Then one day I realized how much I missed my friends at The Gardens. They were more than friends. They were family, as Rose had been.

All it took was a phone call.

“We’d love you to come back! The ladies miss you and still talk about you.”

The response convinced me. I recognized my own need for the wonderful friendships I’d found. Seeking to do something for my sister and for her fellow residents, I’d found a loving community and become a part of it.

I’m eighty years old now and can’t go every week, so I go every other Tuesday. We sing songs. We exchange stories and share memories. We laugh and we cry.

I know that if I am ever alone and need a place to live, there’s a place I can go where people will remember my name.

~Toni Somers

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