Sam Bauman: What is RSVP volunteering like? Here’s a summary
Friends ask me about how it is to volunteer for the Senior Volunteer Program in Carson City. They have little idea what the major volunteer jobs are like in RSVP.
Under the Respite program, a volunteer first meets a new client in the company of an RSVP agent. This usually is a two-hour meeting with the client and caregiver in which both sides explain their needs and abilities to help.
This comes after the volunteer gets a basic course in dealing with those suffering from dementia. If the meeting goes well, a schedule is agreed on, from two to five hours for the regular visits.
Most clients suffer from dementia in one of its many forms, Alzheimer’s being the most common. Parkinson’s is next; after those, two there’s a wide variety of dementia types.
No two dementia clients are alike. Each person reacts differently, and it’s the volunteer’s task to fit his actions to the client’s needs. My first Alzheimer’s client had a specific program in mind. We would sit and chat from 10 a.m. to noon, at which time an RSVP driver would pick us up and take us to the Carson Nugget lunch room. The waitresses there knew what he liked for lunch.
All the time the client would be asking similar questions or commenting on the decor. He took pride in paying for our lunches with a credit card. The driver would return us to the client’s home. (RSVP rules do no allow someone acting in the Respite role to drive a client; it’s a safety precaution.)
My second client was a talker, able to vividly recall incidents of 30 or 40 years ago. When he used up memories, he liked to play billiards or pool in his rec room upstairs. It was effortless to sit with him; he could amuse us both. Sadly, he had to be placed in a nursing home as his dementia worsened.
Then, a wrenching case: a comatose man. He couldn’t speak or move. I only sat with him once, as he died shortly after we met.
Now there’s Anthony, a man in his 70s suffering from Alzheimer’s. He’s always cheerful and likes some TV (always channel 8). Respite volunteers are never to let a client out of our immediate area, but Anthony likes to wander his small neighborhood, picking up trash. At first I tried to join him, but his caretaker told me he was fine wandering; everyone knew him and would bring him home if he appeared lost.
I’ve served more clients and obviously they are human beings — perhaps not in the same world as I am, but still capable of feeling and hurting. I try to always be upbeat, to praise when merited (or not), and never to be judgmental. And I try to go slowly in almost everything. The clients are suffering something I cannot conceptualize; it’s their world and my job is to help.
Who knows? It’s not too late for me to be in their world.
Respite is a continual learning process, each client unique and needing help in one way or another. Perhaps several generations ago there wasn’t a Respite; families simply took in the maiden aunt or aging uncle and helped them live. Perhaps we didn’t know there was such a thing as dementia then. We thought they were just getting senile (a word out of fashion now).
There’s much more to Respite training, such as monthly meetings with representatives of groups such as the Northern California and Northern Nevada Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, where news of senior and dementia care is discussed. It’s all a post-grad class in helping others get along.
Sam Bauman writes about issues affecting seniors for the Nevada Appeal.