Volunteering: A Tale From The Trenches

For the last three years, I've done volunteer work at a retirement facility which provides graduated levels of care to its residents: independent living, assisted, then the center for those in need of round-the-clock care. You might ask how I can possibly fit volunteering into my busy schedule. Well, one of the perks of being an independent contractor (to help compensate for receiving absolutely no benefits) is job flexibility. And in our current econonomy, my schedule has become ever-so flexible.

So for the last year and a half, I've been visiting a cranky octogenerian. I'll call her Bianca. We've developed a bond that somewhere along the line has crossed over from strictly caregiver/care receiver to friend, in spite of her "bad attitude." Today I caught her after she'd had a run-in over breakfast with one of her tablemates plus someone who inserted himself into the situation. Her problem right now is having to listen to the jangly, mechanical (like one of those annoying musical cards) rendering of "Jingle Bells" at 7 a.m., a time when she's just not in the mood for "jingling all the way" but would rather be enjoying a quiet, contemplative breakfast. She had the temerity to turn the music off and, in so doing, set off the man at her table. (Then another resident came by and basically congratulated him for chastising her. She's now known as "the Grinch.")

During our visit, I had the somewhat-depressing realization that she's really not made much progress from my first telephone call with her so many months ago. She was unhappy then; she's unhappy now. Bianca wants to be, in her words, sitting under a tree with a book but has found herself instead in this communal situation where everyone is in everyone else's pockets. She doesn't want to play bingo or cards. She's tired of the social activities designed to keep the residents busy. She wants to be independent -- cook for herself, be on her own timetable -- but her circumstances don't allow that.

I was originally assigned to her to help her deal with her anger and general discomfiture that she felt upon arriving at her new place (after a merger of two facilities and forced move). She had made peace with her prior living arrangement, then found herself, through no fault of her own, in this new place.

I wish I could wave my wand over her and make everything better, but life doesn't work that way. Fortunately, we usually leave our time together laughing (which we did today) and everything is okay, if just for that little while.

Working with older folks was not something I planned to do; it's something I fell into. But I've learned so many things. It's taught me to have a little bit more understanding and compassion for our elders. Our society so often just warehouses them; marginalizes them; doesn't recognize their value. To see someone in such changed circumstances, a life reduced to, first, a little apartment; then a room with a bath; then a hospital bed, it's pretty humbling. We'll all be in her shoes one day.

Bianca asked me why God doesn't just take her. I told her that she's providing way too much entertainment for Him here on Earth (and, really, He probably hasn't figured out what to do with her just yet). She keeps telling me that I need to write a book about her. We all have a story to tell. Perhaps one day, I will.

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