The Unexpected Benefits of Volunteering at an Adult Day Respite Center
I never expected to become more patient or receive a master class in gratitude, but I continue to learn from the experience
Almost 11% of Americans over sixty-five have Alzheimer's. With cases expected to double during my lifetime; I realized the odds of becoming a patient or caregiver were too high to ignore. So, I volunteered at our community program, Adult Day Respite Care, to learn while helping.
Respite care can be provided in-home, in long-term care facilities or in adult day centers.
Respite Care provides caregivers a rest while the person with Alzheimer's receives care in a safe, supportive environment. Respite care can be provided in-home, in long-term care facilities, or in adult day centers.
In our community program, two volunteers serve meals and assist a staff member with social time, exercise, games, and crafts. Our clients vary from age-related mild cognitive impairment (MCI) to more severe cases.
While some clients need help finding the right word or have short-term memory problems, one can't produce a complete sentence.
However, all clients can follow simple directions, feed themselves, communicate well enough to make needs known, interact appropriately, use the restroom without assistance (adult briefs are acceptable) and ambulate independently with canes or walkers.
Adjusting to My Volunteer Role
I felt out of place at first. While I have a psychology Ph.D., I possess no preferred volunteer qualifications:
- Health care background
- Experience with older adults or individuals with dementia
- Experience as a family or private caregiver
My volunteer partner was perfect − a retired nurse caring for her mother. It appeared I needed to work to become qualified, so I reminded myself that "volunteers are to be friendly, welcoming, patient, kind and calm with participants."
Patience, never one of my strengths, felt more comfortable.
I could do that while serving coffee, fetching walkers, washing dishes, cleaning and listening. As my comfort level increased, I realized volunteering had unexpected benefits.
I was surprised I was learning to slow down. I chatted with participants after lunch instead of jumping to clear the dishes. I celebrated wins like an energetic game of beanbag toss or successfully spelling sixty words from the letters in the word "Thanksgiving." Patience, never one of my strengths, felt more comfortable.
One day I remained in the singing circle instead of leaving to prepare tea and water glasses. The louder I sang, the more energetic we became. I realized they didn't want an introverted dishwasher; they wanted interaction and fun. Laughter, smiles, hugs, warmth and connection are more critical than efficiently-served meals.
I began to appreciate the best part of each person. I looked forward to one woman's afternoon ritual as she balanced against her walker to hug and thank us.
Laughter, smiles, hugs, warmth and connection are more critical than efficiently-served meals.
I enjoyed hearing stories from the social worker who'd been a houseparent for teen girls in Philadelphia.
But, on the other hand, I wondered how much of the world the retired flight attendant had seen, then forgotten.
Some caregivers don't use Adult Day Respite centers because they feel their loved one doesn't yet need the program. For example, one caregiver said her husband wasn't ready for our program but also revealed he tries to use the TV remote as a cell phone (and vice versa).
Benefits to Caregivers
Another caregiver insists her husband didn't belong because he was a retired physician, even though a former doctor attends our program. Acceptance and knowledge are vital to navigating any illness. Caregivers using the program appear less stressed and anxious than those claiming the program isn't a fit.
Some clients would prefer to attend. One woman can't convince her suspicious, anxious mother to venture outside her home's drawn blinds. While respite care programs aren't the solution for everyone, they provide needed socialization and stimulation that homebound people don't get.
I learned about dementia symptoms and ways to ease those symptoms. While energetic and fit, Ann never said anything besides "yes," "no," and "why?" She'd bolt for the door when frustrated with games, crafts or conversations.
Since leaving the facility wasn't an option, my volunteer partner and I took turns occupying Ann with birdwatching or admiring photos in an adjoining room.
Ann became agitated after lunch, so I wondered how I'd keep her busy for three more hours. I pulled out an album by the Mamas and the Papas, and when "California Dreamin'" began, Ann's face brightened as she swayed to the music. We locked eyes, smiled and sang while we slowly rocked.
I was shocked when the full lyrics flowed from her mouth. No longer frustrated, not trying to flee, she was more than content. Ann was joyful.
I learned embarrassment and shame could remain intact after words have left. When Ann tried eating soup with a fork, no matter how kind the suggestion that a spoon would work better, she blushed and frowned before switching utensils. We could keep such moments at a minimum.
While respite care programs aren't the solution for everyone, they provide needed socialization and stimulation that homebound people don't get.
Ann was limited to one day per week when the facility decided they couldn't dedicate one volunteer to her care. So, unfortunately, it was not my day. Keeping her occupied was exhausting but rewarding.
She was willful but bright and full of life. While she couldn't participate, she appeared to understand conversations and often was the first to laugh at a joke. I missed her.
Inspired by Positivity
Frank took Ann's slot, but I doubted anyone could replace her energy. Yes, Frank was super-kind among a group of gentle people. Yes, he offered compliments and praise amid a sea of compliments. But it was his repeated expression of gratitude that lifted us. I'm a longtime believer in the importance of gratitude, but Frank was an expert.
I heard murmuring while serving soup, but only when seated did I realize the sound came from Frank. Between each spoonful, Frank whispered, "M'm, M'm, M'm. Boy, they make good soup here!" Those who heard him smiled. Every conversation lag was filled with "M'm, M'm, M'm!" His praise was genuine and continuous.
I was entranced. "You certainly are easy to cook for!" He grinned. "Their soup is always delicious!" Of course, Frank was right; the freshly-made soup was wonderful. But he produced compliments when the food wasn't stellar.
Halfway through an unremarkable chicken breast shoved against bland mashed potatoes, Frank leaned back and smiled. "Well, this will keep you full right up until dinner!"
I laughed and complimented his ability to find the positive in any situation. He beamed and returned to his meal.
I never expected to receive a master class in gratitude at the Adult Day Respite center. However, I'd like to know what I'll learn next.