As someone who has been working with seniors and adults living with disabilities for a few years now, I often forget how intimidating it can be to come into a nursing home or independent living facility for the first time. There may be a person sitting by themselves looking lonely, a strange smell, or seeing someone confined to a wheel chair can make people feel nervous. However, the old saying “Never judges a book by its cover,” definitely describes working with the senior population.

As the baby boomer generation begins to age, the senior population will continue to grow dramatically. This increase will mean that there will be even greater need among the senior community, requiring you to interact with an older adult in your everyday volunteering life. Here are some things that I have learned from volunteering with seniors that, I hope, will help you feel more comfortable and get you excited about serving Chicago seniors.

  1. They have lives. Obviously they have lives, they are living right? What I mean is they have active social, work, and family lives. If you come to a project where a meal is served you will notice some residents grab their meals to go. That’s because they may have a job to get to, a family member to visit, or even their own volunteer project lined up. I’ve spoken to some residents who have more active social calendars than most 20 something’s I know, myself included!
  2. They love to crack jokes! I have to admit most of the jokes that I know (clean and otherwise) have come from a senior that I’ve worked with. So if you’re into laughing in any capacity, you have to park yourself next to the resident who has the biggest smile on their face. Chances are they have something funny going on in their mind that they are just waiting to share.
  3. Seniors tell the best stories. This one maybe a bit cliché but it’s so true. Some residents are old enough to remember Vietnam and WWII. Most have lived through the civil rights movement. Some are first generation immigrants. There is so much history to be shared. Some fun, some touching, some thought-provoking. For the most part they love sharing these stories. Most view it as a way to pass down their own history and to connect to someone outside, especially if they don’t have family in the area.
  4. They want to be treated like regular people. I know this seems obvious but a lot of times we view our elderly as fragile or incompetent. Now I’m not saying you should challenge Mr. Jones to a game of tackle football outside after breakfast, but you don’t have to treat every senior you see with kid gloves. Some residents do have safety concerns, but trust me, they will let you know or make it obvious if they need your help. In the meantime just being pleasant and polite will get you a long way with this group.
  5. BINGO IS SERIOUS! Enough said…but seriously bingo is one of the most popular activities at senior facilities. Recent studies have shown that bingo is not only fun for seniors but it also can improve their memory, how they absorb information, and their mental speed. A study done by Rush hospital medical center showed that bingo actually is good for mental health and may even be key to healthy aging because it allows seniors to build a sense of community between one another, in addition to promoting good hand-eye coordination and memory skills.

Chicago Cares has a wide variety of ways to engage with seniors throughout the entire city; everything from cooking meals, to playing bingo, creating crafts, computer skills, discussion groups and more! Check out some projects near you to meet some amazing people and make an important difference in the lives of Chicago seniors.

Today’s post if by Human Services Senior Program Coordinator, Rosie Drumgoole.

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