55: Eighty-Year-Old Volunteer

55: Eighty-Year-Old Volunteer

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Eighty-Year-Old Volunteer

I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.

~Edward Everett Hale

My mother is eighty years old, and every Wednesday for the past fifteen years — except for a couple of months after she had her hip replaced and several weeks after a subsequent knee replacement — she has driven twenty minutes to volunteer at the “old folks home” where she spent many years employed as a healthcare aide.

She was forced to retire when the Ontario government decided to make retirement at age sixty-five mandatory. She swears she would still be working at the nursing home if they hadn’t made her quit. The government saw the error in their ways and a few years later mandatory retirement was revoked, but it was too late for my mother. Though she had loved the job and the old people who lived at the nursing home, she was already retired. So she started her stint as a volunteer.

Every Wednesday, even though she is now older than many of the nursing home residents, she volunteers her time to help “the dear old souls” just as she did when she was an employee and being paid for her services.

Mom was, and is, old school. When she worked, she really worked. No sitting around and shirking responsibilities for her. No letting someone else do what needed to be done. As a farmer’s wife she raised five children, kept house, helped with the farm work, and canned and preserved the yield from a huge garden that she planted and tended annually. When she got the full-time job at the nursing home she added night school to her many responsibilities and graduated as a healthcare aide in her middle age.

She worked hard during her career. She helped residents with their meals, helped them in and out of bed and the bathtub, even cleaned up the messes resulting from incontinence. One of her favourite stories is how an older woman, totally embarrassed because she had messed herself, couldn’t believe that Mom was singing as she calmly and cheerfully cleaned things up.

“You can sing while you do that?” the old lady, who was known for not saying much of anything, said as Mom worked away. After having so many children and looking after her mother-in-law during the final years of her life, it wasn’t a big deal to her. She had changed lots of diapers and cleaned up lots of messes in her lifetime.

A second favourite story is how a supervisor remarked on Mom’s “handy-bag” of knitting projects, which she always had with her when she arrived for overnight shifts. While many of the overnight staff took catnaps once the residents were safely in their beds, Mom would work on her projects, ever alert and vigilant in case the residents needed her help — or just a reassuring voice after a bad dream. Night terrors aren’t strictly for the young.

Nowadays Mom isn’t responsible for the same work she did as a member of the paid staff. In her volunteer role she mainly visits with the residents. Most of the ones who lived at the home when she was employed there, including her own father, have passed away. But she makes new friends each week. She gets to know the new residents, many her age or younger, and is quick with a smile or a pat on the back. She has the time to listen to their life stories and reminisce with those who, like her, grew up in the community. There are lots of stories to tell when someone has the time to listen.

She has taken it upon herself, during her Wednesday afternoon volunteer stints, to make sure people aren’t sitting alone in their rooms feeling sorry for themselves or pining for company. It is her personal mission to talk each and every one of the residents into taking part in church services and musical entertainment programs in the common area.

“A lot of them would just sit in their rooms being lonely,” she says. “I don’t give them a choice. I just tell them that there’s a lovely program going on and they should attend and before they can say no, there we are.”

Some she walks with arm in arm, others she helps into their wheelchairs and then pushes to their destination. She is proud the Wednesday afternoon events, when she’s volunteering, have the largest attendance of any of the special events held at the nursing home.

Mom is there over the lunch hour and often helps those who need assistance eating their meals, coercing some without appetites to have just one more bite, the same as she did with her children when they were little. She has helped residents with knitting projects, taught some the nearly forgotten art of tatting, which she herself learned from her mother, and taught others how to play euchre, crazy eights, solitaire and other card games. There’s very little Mom likes better than a good game of cards.

“Solitaire is wonderful for someone who is alone,” she says. “It keeps them occupied and it’s great for the brain. Anything to keep a person thinking.”

Up until a couple of years ago Mom hosted a barbecue for the residents who were mobile enough to visit the home she shares with my dad. She would supply the lemonade and her famous homemade butter tarts and everyone would sit on the front lawn, in the shade of the stately old trees, reminiscing about their lives before “the home.”

Also until just a few years ago, she would drive carloads of residents to neighbouring towns for shopping expeditions or lunch out at a local restaurant. When she turned eighty she took a Wednesday afternoon off from her volunteer duties and took the mandatory training course to have her driver’s license renewed. Now, though, she usually gets a ride with a younger volunteer or takes the bus when excursions are planned during her Wednesday volunteer time.

Mom swears that she is going to live at the nursing home “when she gets old.” We tease her and remind her that she is older than a lot of residents living there now and that if she lives as long as her father, who was at the nursing home for a brief period of time before his death at age ninety-eight, she still has a lot of volunteer years left.

Mom transitioned from hardworking farm wife and mother of five to healthcare aide to hard-working volunteer. She will continue to think of herself that way, and when she moves in she will surely help the staff members with the other residents. That’s just the kind of inspirational woman she is.

~Lynne Turner

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