Ten thousand Americans turn 65 every day, according to the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, and a person turning 50 today still has more than half of their adult life ahead of them.
What’s a retired person to do with all that time – on average, at least 12 years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control — on their hands?
One option is to volunteer, and El Dorado’s Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), also known as El Dorado Connections, offers an avenue for local residents to easily get involved in the community.
“The RSVP program was kind of born out of a conference on aging that was held at the White House in 1961, when they saw there was a need for retired people to still have useful activity, and what better way to do that than to volunteer in their community where there were different needs for different projects in their community,” RSVP Director Julia Amis said earlier this month.
The local RSVP chapter was founded 50 years ago, and in those five decades, thousands of local seniors have donated their time to give back to the community. Many have found that the program benefited them just as much as the work they did benefited the cause they were working toward.
Bonnie Miears, Shirley Randle and Joe Doyle are three current RSVP volunteers, each having taken on different activities through the organization. Miears and Doyle were both introduced to RSVP through volunteer fairs, while Randle encountered the group first when she was still working as a home health nurse.
“My church had a fair for volunteering one year, and (RSVP) had a booth there. I started with transporting, taking the elderly or those who couldn’t drive to doctor’s appointments and the grocery store,” Miears, 78, said, adding that she’s also helped other seniors enroll for health care and receive assistance with tax preparation, delivered food and, previously, read to children.
Randle’s volunteer work has followed a similar path to her work as a home health nurse; she’s been involved in giving other seniors rides, finding money to pay their bills and helping those with limited mobility get ramps built on their properties, she said.
“Part of my job was targeted case management, kind of a social work kind of thing. I just recently retired, so now I mostly do home visits and getting somebody to dialysis, make sure they’re taking their medicine right. One lady I’m helping with her finger sticks, checking her blood sugars,” Randle, 64, said.
Doyle, 65, decided to get involved with the Interfaith Help Services when he was introduced to RSVP at a volunteer conference a few years ago. He’s now the president of IHS, which operates a food pantry and also offers utility and dental care assistance.
“I went there and was looking for something to get involved with and I came across the Interfaith Help … They kind of spoke to what I wanted to get involved in,” Doyle said.
Miears, Randle and Doyle all come from different backgrounds. Miears, who attends Immanuel Baptist Church, was a banker before she retired. Randle, in addition to her career as a home health nurse, also worked as a school nurse in the El Dorado School District. Doyle used to be a chemical engineer at Great Lakes.
But, upon retirement, they all found that they needed a way to continue to stay involved in the community.
“I like to stay active. I’m not one to sit around much, I’m busy during the day. I like to be involved,” Miears said. “It does keep you going. You’ve got a goal… It keeps me active and I’m very healthy, so I’ve always got somewhere to go. And mentally – if you’re active, your mind doesn’t get stale.”
Randle only recently retired, and since she was already involved with RSVP, it was easy to keep volunteering through the organization after she quit working. She’s thinking about other ways to get involved, she said, noting that she would like to help out with CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocates) some time in the future.
“It’s fulfilling for the person that’s volunteering; knowing that they’re helping someone, that’s fulfilling in itself,” she said. “I grew up with my mom always helping people. She was always helping somebody with something, so I knew I wanted to be like that too.”
Doyle got perhaps a bit more than he originally bargained for since he first started volunteering with RSVP, since he’s now been made president of IHS. But it’s worth it, he said, since he stays busy.
“When I first retired, I traveled a lot – I’ve got four kids and my daughters invited me to go to this national park or the California coast – so I kind of got all my travelling desires out of the way. That was about a year’s time frame,” Doyle said. “After that, there was, I don’t know, maybe six months or maybe longer where I didn’t have enough to do… I decided I needed something else and that’s when I went to that conference thing, and ever since then it’s been a little deeper and deeper.”
“It’s kind of filled my days with something pleasant,” he added.
Amis, the RSVP director, said volunteerism has been proven to be positive for older adults.
“It gives them a sense of value – that they still have something worthwhile to give to their community. It’s good for their mental health and their physical health to still be involved, and it’s rewarding; it’s a rewarding experience when you are giving of yourself to help someone else,” she said.
According to Americorps, the federal program RSVP is now administered under, “those who volunteer have lower mortality rates, greater functional ability and lower rates of depression later in life than those who do not volunteer.” The organization cites several studies showing that older adults who volunteer find a sense of purpose in giving back.
“I think the focus on being productive and having structure in your activities, daily activities, and being connected to other people is very essential to being happy, and I think if you’re isolated and you’re not engaged with other people you become not as fulfilled,” Doyle said. “Just hanging around the house can get old after a while, and having something to do is really good, physically and mentally.”
Aron Pagan, outreach coordinator for the University of Arkansas for Medical Science Centers on Aging’s El Dorado office, agreed.
“As individuals, the need to feel useful and valued is important. As we age that does not change. Being able to offer your talents, time and service to give back as a volunteer gives you that satisfaction of being needed. Plus, being a volunteer is not something you do for a paycheck but rather from your heart and giving your time and efforts feed the soul with positivity and joy,” she said. “It’s important to have a positive outlook on life as we age and find joy in the things we are involved in. In return this can result in a happier, healthier life.”
Amis said RSVP has several different focus areas currently, and is always open to hearing seniors’ ideas for new volunteer opportunities.
“Right now the program is focused on independent living for the aging population and we have volunteers that help support people in their homes by providing transportation and meals occasionally, and calling and visiting, checking on them when they’re home alone,” Amis said. “Another focus is to support our local food pantries by helping them distribute food, pack up and distribute food.”
The RSVP also has a program in the spring each year where seniors can receive help preparing their taxes, and it runs the Literacy Council of Union County, giving seniors the opportunity to provide reading and writing tutoring to other adults in the community.
“This RSVP program has tried to recognize needs in our community that volunteers could help with,” Amis said. “As the community grows and changes, the need changes.”
Pagan said any kind of volunteer work can be beneficial for older adults.
“Any type of volunteer work that older adults are able to participate in can be helpful. One of the main things we see in our older adults that do volunteer work is that sense of belonging and contributing to the organizations and community,” she said.
Miears said the program has also helped her make new friends.
“I had several ladies, they would be at home and they would get to where they couldn’t stay at home and they’d go to the nursing home. They were just like family to me, I grew to love them so much,” she said. “I’ve had three or four that have died now. I would keep up with them in the nursing home. They were such lovely little ladies and people; it meant more to me probably than it did to them. Everybody likes to be needed.”
Doyle, who also cleans up trash in the area of 19th Street and Calion Road every week, echoed that sentiment.
“It makes me connected to nice, pleasant, happy people. Everybody I work with is in there to do good and be kind,” he said.
Pagan said social isolation can be a major problem for older adults.
“Here at UAMS South Arkansas Center on Aging we emphasis the need to address social isolation among older adults and being a volunteer is a great way to bring awareness to this rising issue,” she said.
RSVP is also open to seniors in Ouachita and Columbia counties, and Amis emphasized that volunteers can choose projects that speak to their personal passions.
Randle, for example, in continuing helping others with their health care needs and performing home visits, has been able to keep a close connection to her career as a nurse since she continued volunteering after retirement.
Doyle said being able to make a positive impact on the world around him is enough to keep him happy. He said he’s hoping to get his wife involved in RSVP when she retires at the end of the school year.
“I just really feel like my life right now is really fulfilling a lot of it is due to being involved in something that helps everybody else out,” he said.
On Jan. 10, RSVP held a gala to celebrate its 50 years in the community. Before the event, Randle said she was looking forward to connecting with other volunteers. Amis said the organization will hold several other events to mark its five decades in the community throughout this year, with details forthcoming.
“I think it’s remarkable we’ve been able to maintain this grant for all these years so we can continue to serve in this community,” Amis said.
To get involved with RSVP or for more information about the program, visit eldoradoconnections.com or call 870-864-7080. To learn more about the UAMS Centers on Aging, visit uamscentersonaging.org/locations/el-dorado or call 870-881-8969.
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