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Missouri seniors find meaning in volunteering

Tuesday, May 12, 2009 | 5:24 p.m. CDT; updated 8:12 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Patient Tony Dolahite recounts a war story while volunteer Jim Frisby listens at Truman Veterans Hospital on April 4.

COLUMBIA — Willie Payne, a 99-year-old veteran of World War II, has been a resident of the community living wing at the Truman Veterans Hospital for more than a year. He's gotten close to volunteer Jim Frisby.

Frisby, 78, is a Korean War veteran and a retired MU professor of agricultural engineering. He has been volunteering since his retirement in 1996, serving at the veterans hospital for the past year and a half.

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Frisby said volunteering is an important part of his life and that he gets a lot out of his time with patients.

“Getting to meet patients and getting acquainted with them, that’s mainly" the best part, he said. “And feeling like you’re giving something back, that you’re doing something good for someone else.”

Frisby's volunteering doesn't just feel good — it may extend his life span. According to a study presented at the American Geriatrics Society's annual meeting earlier this month, the mortality rate of retirees over 65 who volunteered was lower, on average, than that of their nonvolunteering peers, as reported by healthday.com.

The research by Sei Lee, an assistant professor of geriatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, and the San Francisco VA Medical Center, tracked a group of 6,360 people over age 65 and asked about their volunteer activities beginning in 2002. Preliminary results show that 12 percent of those who volunteered died within the span of the study compared with 26 percent mortality rate for those who didn't volunteer.

"I suspect you do live a little longer if you volunteer," Frisby said. "You have more interest in living, and you take better care of yourself."

At the veterans hospital, where 524 volunteers put in nearly 50,000 hours last year, more than half of the volunteers are age 50 or older. Last year,MU Health Care's 525 volunteers put in more than 100,000 hours, and approximately half of those volunteers are also over 50.

"You couldn't guess the age of many of our volunteers," said Nathan Witt, chief of voluntary services for the veterans hospital. "They're that youthful." Witt said he has seen the apparent connection referenced in the study.

"It seems that somehow those that do good things to others have good things happen to them too," Witt said. "I guess that includes health benefits." 

It doesn't hurt that many of the volunteers at the veterans hospital get in a lot of physical exercise through the volunteer escort program — transporting patients throughout the hospital, guiding them from their rooms to get an X-ray, go to radiology or go anywhere else they may need assistance. Last month, volunteers made 1,392 transports throughout the hospital.

But the benefits of the exercise are secondary to what volunteers get from the relationships they develop with the patients, Witt said.

Fred Juettner, 63, volunteers as a patient escort and said he notices health benefits of the physical activities involved.

"Pushing the patients and walking does require a little work, sort of like cleaning the house," Juettner said, "but (volunteering) is more fun than cleaning."

Tom Leyden, 60, a volunteer for the past two years at the veterans hospital, trades jokes with patients in an effort “to give them a better frame of mind.”

Leyden sees any health benefits as an extra reward. "I don't know if there are any (health benefits), but if volunteering increases my longevity, then that's cool."

Personal relationships between volunteers and veterans become important for the participants on both ends. “Volunteers start for any number of reasons, but they stay because of the relationships they start,” Witt said.

Kay Steward, manager of guest, volunteer and auxiliary services for University Hospital, finds the research affirms what she has always known.

"I find my senior volunteers are committed to their volunteering ... this group enjoys the social aspect of volunteering, as well as keeping their minds stimulated and getting physical exercise. I do believe volunteering makes an impact on a senior citizen's lifespan."

These relationships can provide a way for veterans, volunteers and patientsto talk about their life experiences and the war days, an often difficult subject.

"Vets don't really talk much about the war and what happened to them. They talk to each other but not other people much," Frisby said.

That's why, when 93-year-old Tony Dolahite tells the story of how he hid behind a slender peach tree during machine gun fire in World War II once again, Frisby listens with an understanding ear.

Frisby said he plans to continue helping others. "I'm going to volunteer as long as I'm healthy."


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