Senior volunteers mobilize to help community and each other

By Maayan Jaffe/JNS.org

Age can be just a number.

Click photo to download. Caption: "Chesed Corps" volunteers of the Cedar Village Retirement Community in Mason, Ohio, create paper snowflakes in January 2013 to send to Sandy Hook Elementary School students in Connecticut. The snowflakes helped to welcome the students back to school after the shootings. Credit: Cedar Village Retirement Community.

“Just because someone is older or has limitations does not mean that [he or she] cannot continue to be valuable and make a difference for others,” said Carol Silver Elliott, president and CEO of Cedar Village Retirement Community in Mason, Ohio.

It was with this in mind that Cedar Village’s Chesed Corps was established in 2009. Elliot said the group, the brainchild of a former director of resident programming, came when staffers realized that many of the center’s 300 residents had been successful businesspeople and engaged community volunteers before moving to Cedar Village, and that there was an opportunity to harness their drive.

“We felt there was no reason for them to stop contributing to our general community just because they lived in a retirement community,” Elliott said.

Since then, a sizeable cohort of residents has been making Shabbat baskets each week, which are delivered to Jewish patients at area hospitals. Monthly, they participate in larger projects, such as serving lunch at the Ronald McDonald House or offering music and a meal to the residents of the Center for Respite Care, a shelter for homeless men with short-term medical needs. Participants serve at soup kitchens, collect and sort school supplies for underprivileged children, and bake and ship cookies for American troops.

“It is just absolutely amazing,” said Elaine Dumes, 88, who has been active with the Chesed Corps since its inception. She said it makes her feel good to give back to the community, and that she tries not to miss a program.

Click photo to download. Caption: "Chesed Corps" volunteers of the Cedar Village Retirement Community in Mason, Ohio, make sandwich wraps at Cedar Village in April 2014, a day before serving lunch at the Ronald McDonald House in Cincinnati. Credit: Cedar Village Retirement Community.

“I fell in the beginning of December in my apartment and I broke my femur,” Dumes explained. “I had to go upstairs to the healthcare unit for a month. But I fought my way back down and had an amazing and quick recovery—in part, it was due to this, to wanting to get back to the Chesed Corps.”

Elliot said Cedar Village is careful to staff each volunteer opportunity appropriately to ensure the safety of the residents. Not every person can take part in every project; some volunteer in the building, while others are more comfortable going out. She said that seeing the volunteers in action, she is often unsure who gets more out of it, “the folks we are helping or our folks themselves. … They often forget their own concerns as they focus on someone else’s needs.”

In the spring, Chesed Corps received two national awards for its work, one from the Association of Jewish Aging Services and another from Partners in Senior Life.

In northwest Baltimore, older residents of an entire neighborhood are giving back through a supported community network, which was launched by Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc. in March 2013. 

According to program director Risyl Edelman, Northwest Neighbors Connecting (NNC) is a grassroots, membership-based model in which services are provided to seniors by other senior members, volunteers, and vetted vendors. It gives the area’s aging population the practical means and confidence to live independently and remain in their homes and community.

NNC was created after a 2010 Jewish community study revealed the 85-years-and-older population increased by 166 percent since 1999, and that 40 percent of Baltimore Jewish seniors over 65 who are living alone are in poor or fair health.

Edelman said NNC members are interviewed to learn what skills they can “easily and happily” share with others, and to determine any needs they have.

“After they sign up, we plug them in,” said Edelman. “While our vision is to assist people to remain in their homes for as long as possible, our work is to get them out of their house as much as possible.”

Currently, there are more than 170 NNC members and another 70 people involved with the initiative in some way. The oldest volunteer is 92. Transportation and technology assistance are among the top volunteer services provided.

In Florida, older adults and baby boomer volunteers are trained to function as liaisons, resource specialists, peer counselors, and agency envoys in their own gated communities through the Ferd and Gladys Alpert Jewish Family and Children Services (JFCS) agency. Called “Ambassadors,” the program creates a trained network of seniors who can solve problems and support their frail neighbors.

Some 13,000 elderly people live in West Palm Beach retirement communities, and as many as 70 percent of the area’s over-65 community is Jewish.

“This is civic engagement at the basic level,” said Jenni Frumer, the incoming JFCS CEO.

Frumer told JNS.org that ambassadors are trained by JFCS to identify neglect, listen and offer empathy in times of crisis, and offer personal planning advice to their peers. The volunteers created their own end-of-life planning guide, which they distribute throughout their retirement communities. They also write and act out skits at area synagogues, mahjong tournaments, and other venues, educating seniors about matters such as the need to wear their hearing aids, to remember to put their emergency alert buttons on in the morning, and to improve dialogue with their adult children.

“Our older adults can still teach us how to make the world a better place,” said Cedar Village’s Elliot. “Their example of commitment and volunteerism speaks volumes about Jewish values and our obligation to help others.”

Maayan Jaffe is a freelance writer in Overland Park, Kan. Reach her at maayanjaffe@icloud.com or follow her on Twitter at @MaayanJaffe.

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Posted on May 28, 2014 and filed under Senior Life, Special Sections.