Sam Bauman: The two-way learning street of education at RSVP
December 30, 2012
It’s year end and that often means it’s time for many of us to sum up the last 12 months, to check for gains and losses. For an active senior citizen that can mean thinking about what one contributed over those months.I’ve been pitching in at the Retired Senior Volunteer Program in Carson City for more than a year, first as a driver, that is, someone who is directed by the staff at RSVP to pick up a client who is homebound for a doctor’s appointment, a shopping trip at the supermarket, for lunch at the Senior Citizens Center — anything important to the homebound person who isn’t close to a JAC bus strop and doesn’t have a car.I’ve met some interesting people as a driver over the months, everything from a cranky retired Marine to a woman who needed a walker to get to the car. (Sometimes we drive our own cars, sometimes a van from RSVP. We sometimes get modest reimbursement for mileage.) Often the rider will contribute $2 in a sealed envelope to help pay for the ride.I’ve had an accident once when I rolled over a high bank, and damaged my drive train; RSVP doesn’t cover those things, so it’s out of pocket. Driving is the easiest of RSVP volunteer work.One benefit — I’ve learned a lot about Carson City streets, byways and senior residences. Much of the time I get by with a printed map or instruction. But I recently opted for a GPS device to help find some destinations.Driving is the easiest task for volunteers at RSVP. Much more demanding is the role of Respite volunteer. Here the task is to relieve a caregiver whose housemate suffers from some form of dementia. More often than not, the client is in a stage of Alzheimer’s disease and cannot be left alone; he may wander off and get lost, or roam into dangerous sites. The usual period of staying with a dementia sufferer is three to five hours, talking, watching TV, rarely going over political events or contemporary affairs of movies or books. Each is an individual and needs to be treated with respect.Most often Alzheimer’s clients want to talk about the past, what events they can recall. A few just want to sit quietly. Some talk nonstop, needing only an occasional nod from the volunteer. Some enjoy sports on TV.Surprisingly, caregivers are usually upbeat, positive, even optimistic. They have already seen the worst and are prepared to forge ahead. They are glad to see the Respite volunteer usually but not effusive. They are realists and we can all learn about life from such people. I have found them to be admirable people.When I first started Respite, I knew very little about dementia — I thought it was a specific mental illness rather than an umbrella term which, like the term cancer, covers many specific forms of mental problems such as Parkinson’s disease. RSVP regularly holds seminars or forums to help educate Respite workers, often in team with someone like the Northern Nevada Alzheimer’s Association on the Western Nevada College campus. I’ve learned a lot about dementia at these sessions. It’s one of the benefits of volunteering at RSVP.After these sessions I probably know as much about mental illness as most laymen, possibly more. Now I know the specific symptoms, how to deal with victims and how to become truly friends with them. Friends in a limited, but meaningful way. You hurt when one of your clients no longer needs you. You know what it means.My first Respite client was Tom who was mid-stage Alzheimer’s. He loved to go to the Carson Nugget for lunch and would always marvel at the dcor after asking me repeatedly where I was from. I ate a lot of cheeseburgers at the Nugget.Several clients later I started staying with Arthur Hannafin, a well-known local architect and city activist. He was suffering from Parkinson’s disease and was a shadow of his normal robust appearance, the result of a drug interaction.Art had difficulty speaking and with my hearing loss it was often a repetitious afternoon, but it was always interesting. I spent much of last summer with Art, and I like to think that we truly became friends. We talked about hikes we had made and shared; he had climbed Mts. Whitney and Shasta and he also shared local hike stories with me.And that is the way RSVP works. You give some time and you meet someone and you learn about his or her life. You learn how dementia affects someone and you can see how it would affect you. Yes, you give something but you get a lot more back. Life lessons abound and all you have to do to enjoy them is to give a little of yourself. Happily. • Sam Bauman writes about senior affairs, among other things, for the Nevada Appeal.