Good for the Heart

Nov. 20-26, 2003
VOL 122 NO. 41
Good for the Heart
By Blessed Sacrament staff/ SUN contributing writers
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Richard Hunziker haphazardly fell into volunteering. Following heart surgery, he was getting physical therapy at Lourdes Hospital when a friend told him that volunteers at Lourdes had access to the hospital’s fitness center. The perk sparked Hunziker’s interest. “I went into the volunteer office and I told them, ‘You can give me something tough,’” Hunziker joked. “But I also said I wouldn’t mind watering flowers. I just wanted to do something.”

Little did Hunziker, 74, know that a whim would end up becoming a commitment sustained by love. Each Tuesday and Thursday morning for the past five years, Hunziker has been a constant presence behind the counter in Lourdes’ Café dePaul. Whether he is getting a doctor a quick cup of coffee to catch a second wind or serving a patient’s loved one a snack to pass time, Hunziker’s cheerful demeanor and positive attitude make him someone customers look forward to seeing, said Susan Bock, volunteer services coordinator at Lourdes.

For some seniors, the passage into their golden age is accompanied by a decline in mental and physical abilities, including a general lackluster for life. But it’s not always this way. Hunziker and countless other retired and senior volunteers are proving that growing old is a state of mind, not age. According to information available on the American Association of Retired Persons website, about 44 percent of all people age 55 and older volunteer at least once a year. “I say, ‘The busier the better,’” said the energetic Hunziker. “I want to be a viable, active participant in my community. Volunteering is one way to do it.”

As the need for volunteers has grown, more and more nonprofit organizations have discovered the wealth of experience and expertise available in their communities’ senior populations. The elderly are happy to oblige; volunteering gives them a chance to use the skills they spent so much time cultivating. There are just as many reasons why seniors choose to volunteer as there are agencies in need of their services, said Anne Goulet, director of the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program at Onondaga County Catholic Charities, which helps people age 55 and older put their skills and life experience to work in the community. Seniors might want to find something fun to do, contribute to a meaningful cause or meet new people in their communities who share similar interests.

Ginny Frey had the Alzheimer’s Association of Central New York in mind when she decided to start volunteering. “It was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to give something back to the agency,” said Frey, whose mother-in-law had the debilitating disease. The time the two spent at the association made an immense impact on Frey. “They are doing wonderful things for people affected by Alzheimer’s,” she said. “Like many organizations, the Alzheimer’s Association is in need of committed volunteers to assist with day-to-day operations.”

Ronald Kern has volunteered with Friends in Service Here (FISH) of East Syracuse since August. FISH provides seniors and persons who cannot afford public transportation with rides to medical appointments. Kern said he started volunteering because he wanted to help. “I wanted to do something that at the end of the day made me feel that I made a contribution. It also is a way to show my thankfulness for the good life I have,” said Kern. Perhaps the best reason of all to volunteer is that it is good for the heart. Studies show that seniors who volunteer may actually be adding years to their lives. Researchers at the University of Michigan discovered a remarkable link between volunteering and lower death rates. They surveyed 1,211 adults over 65 (mostly retirees) in 1986 and checked up on them eight years later. The subjects who volunteered at least 40 hours each year to a single cause were 40 percent more likely than non-volunteers to be alive at the conclusion of the study. The trend held even when researchers took differences in the two groups’ incomes, health and number of weekly social interactions into account. Interestingly, focus seemed to be crucial: Volunteers who spread their time among several organizations didn’t gain an advantage in longevity.

Emily Morizio, a volunteer in the Employee Health Office at Lourdes, feels better about herself, mentally and physically, when she volunteers. “A big part of getting older is keeping a sharp mental attitude. Volunteering keeps your mind stimulated,” said Morizio. Some seniors admit they meet challenges on the volunteer site. In certain situations they are tackling a new skill or working in an unfamiliar setting. But organizations are equipping them with the necessary tools to rise to the occasion. When Carole Brady, a clerical volunteer in the 1970s at Lourdes, came back to the hospital in the early 90s to start volunteering again, she found a completely new world. “It was entirely different,” she said. The lobby looked unfamiliar; the small front desk and tiny stool she once sat on in the main lobby were replaced with a desk covered from one end to the other with computer equipment. There was a new technological way to perform the same tasks she manually performed 30 years ago. Tediously handwriting detailed patient information on individual note-cards was replaced by time-efficient entering the data into a computer. One thing, though, remained the same.

“The staff and volunteers at the hospital are just as wonderful as they were back then. It is still like a family,” Brady said. To learn the new computerized system, Brady enrolled in a computer class the hospital offers to its volunteers. The class falls under an umbrella of services and benefits Lourdes extends to all of its 500-plus volunteers, including free flu shots, educational classes and special rates and access to the hospital’s physical fitness center. The stereotype of teenage candy stripers that is frequently associated with hospital volunteers isn’t completely accurate. Bock estimates that senior citizens constitute 70 percent of the volunteers at Lourdes. The computer class allows them the opportunity to be on the same page –– technologically speaking –– as high school students who have grown up in a computer-dominated world. But all volunteers can benefit from the short classes, explained Bock. “The classes can really help everyone along,” she said. “There is always something new to learn.” For Brady, landing a volunteer opportunity was a simple walk across the street, as Lourdes is a mere stone’s throw from her home. Other seniors who aren’t as close to an organization rely on various agencies in the community to connect them with volunteering opportunities.

Currently, there are approximately 500 seniors volunteering through RSVP who serve in organizations ranging from hospitals and youth recreational centers to police stations and educational facilities. The local chapter is sponsored by Catholic Charities. Goulet said retired and senior volunteers are a win-win situation for both individual and organization. “These are active, outgoing confident people who have talents to contribute,” Goulet explained. “It is also true that older people are reliable. They show up on time and agencies can count on them.” Goulet meets one-on-one with potential volunteers and finds an organization that matches their interests. “Many volunteers don’t know what they want to do,” said Goulet. “While many stay in their area of expertise, such as teachers or accountants, some want to try something new.”

Patty Hinshaw works in the Volunteer Office at Lourdes. She came to the hospital as a volunteer through the Broome County Office for Aging. The office is a wonderful resource for senior citizens, said Hinshaw. Similar to RSVP, volunteer recruiters and staff at the office meet with potential volunteers to discuss their skills and interests and match them with volunteer opportunities. For Hinshaw, who moved to Binghamton from Arlington, Va., volunteering was a venue to meet fresh faces. “I met more people in three months volunteering than I had met in two years in Binghamton,” remarked Hinshaw.

When seniors are volunteering, they are doing something that makes them feel good about themselves. However, it often turns into more than they expect. Their caring and commitment benefit them as well as those they are helping. “Yes, you are giving something, but you are also getting something back. It’s better to light one candle than curse the darkness,” said Hunziker, quoting the motto of The Christophers, a non-profit service organization. As more seniors remain healthy, fit and active well into their golden years, the number of retirees who volunteer is expected to grow. For these men and women, sitting back and relaxing after retirement isn’t an option. Rather, they will continue to discover ways to contribute to society. And society will continue to benefit from their sharing. “To anyone who is thinking of volunteering, I would tell them to stick their toes in the water,” Hunziker said. “It’s never too late. Once you find your niche, you can do some great things.”

For more information on volunteering opportunities call Lourdes Hospital at (607) 798-5111 or contact Anne Goulet at RSVP at (315) 424-1810.

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