After retirement, I upped my volunteering. I have led seniors' group hikes for a local YMCA, assisted in teaching adult basic education classes, and helped prepare food packages.
My primary volunteer work, however, has been with the nonprofit organization whose mission is: "Helping seniors and individuals with disabilities to maintain their independence and continue living in their homes." I provide two services — giving clients rides to medical appointments, haircuts and shopping excursions; and delivering groceries to others. I average about 30 hours and 400 miles a month.
This kind of hands-on volunteer work is new to me. I am recognizing some things that, I hope, make a valuable volunteer.
- Treat volunteering like a "real" job. It may be because I was an employee for over 50 years, but when volunteering I am reliable, on time, and I do my best while on "the job." It's easy to think "What are they going to do — fire me?" But people depend on the quality of volunteer labors. Late pickups, mashed potato chips or simply not showing up are not acceptable.
- Interactions are as important as the work itself. With the isolation caused by the pandemic, the seniors I serve may be the only other people I talk to all day. But often I find that I may be the only person a client has talked to all week — or for weeks on end.
Showing interest, empathizing with problems they describe, even laughing at bad jokes, might make someone's day. If some seem crabby, I try to remember that they may be in physical or emotional pain.
- Do a little extra. My final words whenever I drop off a client or finish toting groceries are, "Is there anything else I can help you with?" Not often, but now and then, I wind up carrying out some trash, moving a plant from one room to another, or placing cartons of cat food up in a cupboard. One lady, after being asked what else I could do, shyly pointed to three pill bottles on the kitchen counter and asked if I could help her get the lids off. For the rest of the day, I thought how little those few seconds cost me, but how much impact they may have had for her.
- Maintain boundaries. While it's easy to form a sort of relationship with clients you serve often, it's also important that professionalism be maintained. I insist that any appointments go through the organization's office. I rarely give out my phone number. I refuse monetary gifts (I've been known to accept a cookie). If people want to talk about families or health, I listen and share a little. But I don't bring up either subject (or politics, or religion). Usually it's pretty safe to talk about the weather.
- Remember that volunteering is good for you as well as the client. My retirement "plans" were primarily about travel. After all those years of being able to only stay in an exotic place for a week or two, I would finally live the life of a vagabond. And I did happily and extensively travel in "Year One." But of course COVID closed many things down. So I had many empty days and weeks.
Volunteering gave me back some structure, some entries on my calendar, some reasons to set my alarm, to shave, to get dressed, to keep the car clean. I could make the argument that volunteering does more for volunteers than for those they help.
My own 89-year-old mother lives about four hours away, so I don't see her as often as I should — and I feel guilty. But while I can't help her on a regular basis, I can help other seniors, so many of whom do not have families or friends to rely on. Volunteering salves my conscience so I try to be good at it.
I try to be the volunteer I would want helping my mother.
Doug Johnson lives in Burnsville.