Bob Krause has been a volunteer driver for 20 years. He retired from the Todd County Soil and Water Conservation Service about that long ago and took up driving people to doctor’s appointments, meetings, and most anything other than buying groceries at the local stores. “I live seven miles out of town (Long Prairie). It doesn’t make sense to drive seven miles to drive someone a couple of blocks to the grocery store.” But he’s quite willing to drive four hours to take someone to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester or spend half a day waiting for someone’s dialysis treatment. It jives well with his other interests in growing Christmas trees, running a small sawmill and squeezing apples for cider. Why does he volunteer as a senior driver? “Because some day I’m going to need someone to drive for me.” That might sound like a self-serving reason, but those who know Bob also know that he likes people and enjoys his driving duties for more reasons than that.
Verna knows that Bob’s volunteer activities also benefit him. As they do 77-year-old Eagle Bend resident Carrol Peterson, who has been driving other people around as an official senior driver since November of last year. Her usual trips are to Staples, Long Prairie or Little Falls but she also treks to Fargo or St. Cloud. “I’m comfortable driving in the metro area but would rather find the Rochester clinics than those in the Twin Cities.” Why does she do it? “Driving is my favorite thing to do,” she says simply.
Ask a group of senior volunteers about the benefits of their volunteerism and they’re quick to point out a long list: “It keeps us active; it affects both our physical and mental well-being; it’s good to be thinking about someone else; you want to feel needed; it keeps the kids wondering where in the heck you are.”
They were also quick to add that it’s not something they stop and think about very often. “It takes the fun away if you stop and analyze it,” said one of the cookie bakers at the Eagle Bend Senior Center.
Gladys Judes keeps track of the hours of drivers who deliver meals-on-wheels in the Todd County area. She says she finds it difficult to get the drivers to keep track of their hours. It’s just not their main reason for doing it. Verna believes that volunteerism should be part of retirement planning.
“People should try some volunteer activities before retiring,” she says. She advises asking what it’s going to do for you to make your life whole? Many plan for retirement by thinking about doing all those things they couldn’t do during their work years. Yet after the first few months of fishing, cleaning closets and following Facebook, they start to feel that something is missing. Verna knows that missing “something” is giving of oneself to better the greater community. A well-rounded life, feeling whole, is about giving as well as receiving.
Senior companions, master gardeners, respite volunteers, nursing home assistants, as well those who are involved in clubs, community theaters, churches, schools, museums, libraries, hospitals and day care centers report feeling happier, being more socially connected, having more confidence, enjoying life more, and being healthier. Another benefit is that volunteer activities enhance conversation. Group members have shared experiences. Individuals learn something new and want to talk about it.
Foster grandparents feel the love when spending time in elementary classrooms. Many older people who have lost their spouse have also lost the benefits of human contact. The inherent hugs of exuberant kindergarten classrooms have two-way benefits.
Todd County, with a higher percentage of senior citizens than any other county in the state, is fortunate to have Verna serving as an aging coordinator, something few counties have. Her predecessor, Dort Gear, was instrumental in getting a special grant for senior transportation and stayed on to coordinate other senior activities. Verna has continued and expanded programs in the county. “I go to meetings, and people tell me, ‘You have so many things for seniors,’” she says. But she knows the benefits of staying active. She also knows the stresses of being a caregiver, having juggled the needs of her aging mother, and both her husband (Bert) and a good friend in decline from Alzheimer’s. She knows that social connections and the support of family are vital in keeping caregivers going. And volunteer activities are great at establishing those social connections.
Verna advises those who are planning for retirement to consider the following questions when choosing volunteer activities: What do you like to do? Where do you like to go? Do you want to spend time with people like yourself or people from different backgrounds? Do you want to do something you’re already good at or try something totally new? Do you want to fill spare time or take on a larger mission? Do you want to stay close to home or travel? Do you want to sign on with a formal activity that requires background checks, medical releases from doctors, vehicle inspections, and insurance or more of a drop-in, stay awhile, and move on kind of activity? Verna also says that it’s fine to try something out for a while to see if it’s a good fit. If not, try something else. Hollis Bishop, a retired minister, has found a good fit with the senior safe driving program. He has logged more than 200 hours helping his peers to maintain and even improve their driving skills while getting a discount on insurance.
Several years ago, Verna and Bert volunteered together as respite volunteers, giving caregivers a break to run errands or just get away for a while. In one instance, Verna stayed with the homebound person while Bert went with the man to visit the cemetery, something he had done quite often. That particular day, the man wanted to search for his wedding ring which he had lost on a previous visit. Bert wasn’t in a hurry, unlike family or friends who simply may not have been able to take the time to search. And, they found the ring!
Each year Minnesota recognizes two Minnesota seniors as Minnesota’s Outstanding Senior Citizens. Each county in the state nominates seniors who have shown outstanding commitment to community service after reaching the age of 65. Minnesota’s Outstanding Seniors are announced during the state fair. This year, Seniors Day was Aug. 28.