Sometimes a volunteer’s most important role is to just be there.
Over the course of six years volunteering with Episcopal Community Services, Janet Steiner says it’s often the little things that have the most significance in her interactions with the people she meets.
She began as a volunteer with Dolphin Companions, she says, “Because I’ve always liked older people. I find they have interesting stories and wisdom to share, if you take the time to listen.”
“For example, my current companion, Grace, is a veritable encyclopedia of movie knowledge, and through her, I have been catching up on some classic stars and movies that I’ve never known about. A true ‘Bobby Soxer,’ she met Frank Sinatra in person in Philadelphia after chasing him via taxi,” she says.
Filling A Void
Too often, though, older people in nursing facilities don’t have frequent visitors. “Grace has two sons. One died prematurely, and the other lives in California. Although the staff take time to socialize with residents, they have too many responsibilities already, and it’s not their job to sit and chat, play a game, or watch a movie. That’s where I come in,” Janet says. “If I can alleviate some of the boredom, and the family knows that their loved one has a consistent friend visiting, that’s reward enough.”
Janet’s parents set an example by volunteering throughout their lives. “Dad was always puttering around at our church, making small repairs, and mom led a Girl Scout troop”. During retirement, they served as overnight dispatchers for the local volunteer rescue squad. Even now, at 90, Janet’s mom spends a few hours clerking in the gift shop at her retirement community. She also serves communion at the ecumenical service – though she claims it is because she’s one of the few residents who walks unassisted!
Challenges to Face
As with anything, there are challenges.
“Every so often I want to just veg-out after work. Ninety-nine percent of those times, I push myself out the door, and I’m glad I did. It’s not like Grace is sitting counting the hours – many times she may not even remember that I’m going to be there. But I do, and I get to feel just a little virtuous that I didn’t just waste an hour or so in front of the TV or surfing the internet.”
Seeing the inevitable declines of aging is another challenge. “When I first met Grace, she used a walker to and from meals in the dining room. Now, she is always in her wheelchair. I would have loved to take her for a drive, or out to a local garden, but it’s no longer an option, and that’s disappointing.”
While she jokingly tells people she does this for Karma points (“Maybe someone will come and visit me someday”). Janet’s primary reward is in knowing that perhaps she made just one person feel better for a little bit of time.
“When my first companion, Rhoda, died, I had been visiting her for about three years. I attended her Kevurah (Jewish burial rites), and introduced myself to some of her family. Rhoda had told them of our visits, and so many thanked me. That, to me, is priceless.”