The young characters in most of my novels interact with the elderly. Why? I write about what has been significant in my life and my 15 years of volunteer experience serving the elderly has been life changing for me.
While living in a small town in Arizona, I became an advocate for residents who live in nursing homes and assisted living communities. That means I helped them get what they want. I remember the first time my supervisor took me in to a nursing home, an unfamiliar environment for someone who had worked with engineers. The residents appeared fragile and disabled. Some were disfigured by disease and others behaved badly. Some needed help with feeding. Many sat in wheel chairs. Only a few could be easily understood. I was not sure I could relate to these people, let alone serve as their advocate.
My first case was with a resident of an assisted living community who said his son would not give him spending money. I called the son and learned that the resident drank liquor and the son did not approve. That sounded reasonable, but my supervisor said the resident had the right to buy liquor and the son had to give him his spending money. I learned about Resident Rights, federal and state laws that protect basic rights of individuals who live in facilities. Once he got his spending money, the resident thanked me so much that I realized my small deed had changed his life for the better.
In Arizona I visited several assisted living facilities a couple of times each month and got to know the residents. One told me how she had founded the training program for the Peace Corps. Another man told of working on the Panama Canal. A woman remembered seeing the Buffalo soldiers, a famous platoon of black soldiers, at the local fort. These residents had lots of time to talk to me and lots of stories.
We moved to Florida and I traveled over a four county area to inspect facilities or to investigate and resolve complaints. My peers were attorneys, physicians, nurses, pharmacists and gerontologists. They taught me how to encourage residents to open up about problems and how to fight for whatever it was the resident wanted or needed.
Some of the cases were easy to resolve: reimburse for lost clothing, refund unspent money after a resident dies, or make sure that the leaking toilets in the facility are fixed before someone slipped. As time progressed, I took on more challenging cases. I arranged for new dentures, rescued a resident whose bed sore had gone untreated and located lost relatives.
I met a 95-year-old resident who could no longer pay for her assisted living and had no one to help her. I found her sitting in her room surrounded by boxes filled with her possessions and wondering when the police were going to dump her onto the street. I supported her application for federal aid and her move to another facility, and encouraged a local relative to reconnect with her. That resident thanked me every time she saw me.
.I do not volunteer anymore and I miss hearing about long, fascinating lives and miss being appreciated for just being there. Spending time with the elderly has been a priceless experience for me.