Everyone has a story: volunteer reflections from the Wellness & Arts Center

April 25, 2017

Everyone has a story — a family, a life’s work, interests and avocations, a personal history. These stories, and the smiles that often come with them, are one of the things that keep me coming back to Iona Senior Services, where I’ve volunteered weekly since the fall of 2016.

Part of my role as a volunteer in Iona’s Wellness & Arts Center adult day health program is to greet the participants and talk with them as they settle into their day at Iona. As we visit, they sometimes talk about who they are and the interesting paths their lives have taken.

One man shared that he’ll turn 90 years old this month. He’s told me about his past work managing large construction projects nationwide, his love of Irish music, and a visit to Belfast with his son. He has also reminisced about growing up on Long Island and surprised me by listing— in quick succession — all of the rail stops on his long-ago commute to Manhattan!

One woman told me happily about meeting her husband when she was a young person working in San Francisco, and an often-silent elderly gentleman told me quietly one morning a little bit about his childhood and his career with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Another participant is an encyclopedia of facts about Motown and other music. He can’t see, but he can tell you which musician released just about any song he hears, and he can tell you all about popular Washington area radio DJs over the years.

Not all participants in Iona’s Wellness & Arts Center are able or choose to talk about themselves and their lives, but I’m sure they all have rich and diverse life stories they could tell.

While volunteering at Iona, I’ve had the good fortune to observe a program led by Phillips Collection art gallery staff who regularly visit the Wellness & Arts Center. During the program, they show slides of paintings by famous artists, using the images to engage program participants in lively — and sometimes surprising — conversation about what they see in the art and the feelings the art evokes. Recently, they enhanced the experience by bringing along a few soothing sound makers, including one made simply of a Y-shaped wooden stick, a wire, and some old bottle caps. Here’s a photo of one participant, whose eyes and smile lit up in an amazing way when she took the instrument in hand!

Having the opportunity to talk with volunteers, staff, and other seniors — in addition to accessing many services — is a vital part of participants’ experience in the Wellness & Arts Center.

Making that kind of connection with others, even if briefly and in small ways, is one of the gifts we can both give and receive while volunteering at Iona.

My volunteer experience at Iona has helped me think about how we interact with older adults, especially those with cognitive or physical impairments.

Based on this experience, here are some tips that could help other volunteers make the most of conversations with elders.

10 Tips for Volunteers Connecting with Older Adults

  1. Greet the older person and introduce yourself as a volunteer.
  2. Sit or kneel so you’re at eye level if someone is seated.
  3. Look at the person and make eye contact unless doing so seems uncomfortable for the older person.
  4. Listen carefully.
  5. Speak clearly and loudly enough for the person to hear you.
  6. Be patient.
  7. Show compassion and respect.
  8. Avoid making assumptions about the person and what he or she wants.
  9. Make requests using “I,” “we,” “let’s,” or “it” instead of “you.” For example, say “Let’s sit at the table” instead of “You need to sit at the table.”
  10. Smile!

It’s National Volunteer Week! Get involved with Iona by contacting our volunteer coordinator at volunteer@iona.org. Already a volunteer? We’d love to hear from you! Share your story in the comments.

By Susan Farrer

Susan Farrer is an artist, writer, and former deputy project director with the National Institute on Aging’s Information Center.