by Barbara Nevins Taylor
About 300 people packed a church recreation room in Toms River, New Jersey, to share a meal and the knowledge that they enrich the lives of strangers. These volunteer caregivers show the way to help older people in our communities. They deserve applause and more and being with them makes you wonder why this group isn’t the model for a movement across the U.S.
I met these inspiring people because Lynette Whiteman, the executive director of Caregiver Volunteers of Central Jersey, invited me to give the keynote speech at the group’s annual volunteer appreciation dinner. I talked about helping my mom, Aunt Ethel and Cousin Marilyn and I ended in tears. But my participation is beside the point here.
The others who were in the room are the real stars. In their communities in Ocean County they use their own vehicles and invest their physical and emotional energy to help older people live at home and hold on to things that are important to them. Most of the volunteers are in their 60’s and 70’s.
Each volunteer works with what they call a “care receiver.” They do the little things that in previous generations a family member who lived nearby might help out with. They shop for groceries, take someone to a doctor’s appointment and often spend much needed person-to-person time. Some even bring a pet.
Visits like these matter. I know that my mom wanted to chat and brightened at the possibility of conversation. “What’s new in the world of news, sports and entertainment?” she always asked. And if I didn’t hold up my part of the talking, she might even ask the same question again. She craved the communication experience and wanted to sit across from someone who was animated and distracted her from the daily routine.
The volunteer caregivers brighten lives in the part of New Jersey with the oldest population. Many of the people they help have children who live too far away to assist. Others outlived their own kids and family members. Most of those paired with a caregiver are in their 80’s and 90’s and twelve are over 100. And Angela Spagnoli, at 107, is the oldest.
The volunteers also give a break to grown children who are full-time caregivers. 54-year-old Penny Kellow counts on the Volunteer Caregivers as an essential resource. Her dad Robert lives with her and suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease. He requires a great deal of attention. She says, the volunteers who come to give her a break relieve the stress and give her a little time off to take care of herself.
The Volunteer Caregivers of Central Jersey offer essential services and it seems like a perfect model for neighboring counties, the state and the entire nation. We’re going to need a lot of people helping others. The Centers for Disease Control says the older population is growing at an unprecedented number because Americans live longer than ever before, and because of aging Baby Boomers. By the time the last Baby Boomer turns 65 in 2030, 1 in 5 Americans, about 72 million people, will be older adults.
Consider this a Call To Action.
Don’t call us “seniors.” But do work with us and groups like the Volunteer Caregivers of Central Jersey to figure out how one generation can help the next and how neighbors can enable us to live relatively gracefully in our own homes.