Dale Sechler is in his 80s and doesn’t have much time to waste, especially on Wednesdays. He’s got deliveries to make.
By 10:30 a.m., volunteers’ conversation and laughter makes a small room between the loading docks and the kitchen of Truman Veterans Hospital seem even smaller. This is the office of Meals on Wheels, where volunteers eat bagels and wait for the food they will bring to home-bound seniors to be ready.
Sechler, a retired agronomy professor from MU, is among friends as he walks into the room. Almost all the people there are senior citizens. Some of them are older than Sechler. Near 11 a.m., the driving routes are assigned, and the volunteers file to their cars.
According to the 2005 report from the United Way and the Boone County Council on Aging, Boone County’s population of seniors grew 24 percent in the past 10 years, faster than the overall population growth rate. As the number of seniors grows, so does the need for senior services and care.
Sechler said that the way America cares for seniors has changed. “In recent years,” he said, “you see people have a different attitude in that people don’t feel any responsibility towards the old folks. People think, ‘They’ve got Social Security, the government can take care of them.’”
Kenneth Spry, 77, is another one of Columbia’s seniors who volunteers his time to help others of his generation. Two to three times a week, Spry goes to the grocery store with a neighbor who has Alzheimer’s disease. In the fall, he helps him with yard work.
“There are people down there at the Boone County Council on Aging who do so much for seniors,” he said. “They’ll pull your weeds. They’ll take you to the grocery store. If you need someone to talk to for a little while, they’ll send someone to talk to you. This year I had a pacemaker put in, and my knees are bad, but I still do what I can.”
Spry is one of almost 500 volunteers with the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, or RSVP, in Boone County. The federal program gets local funds from the Boone County Council on Aging, which has been recruiting seniors for volunteer work since 1971. Although Spry has faced his own health problems, he counts himself among the lucky volunteers who care for others. Once a month, Spry also volunteers at the council to fold newsletters. Each time, he brings a cake that he baked to show his appreciation. He spends a lot of his free time assembling model cars and has given 30 of them to the council as gifts.
Cynthia Jobe, RSVP project manager, said helping senior citizens live independently is one of the program’s main goals. Of the 58,000 hours volunteered by seniors in 2006, almost half were spent providing services to nursing homes, senior centers and Meals on Wheels
“The senior population has exploded locally in the last five to 10 years,” Jobe said. “One of the big groups is the age range 55 to 65. But the 85 and older group is also growing quickly, and when you get to that age, you need more support to live independently.”
The average age of RSVP’s volunteers is 75. Some are even in their 90s, which puts them in striking distance of needing services themselves. According to Jobe, many volunteers gradually become clients as their health becomes more precarious. One of the advantages they gain from their volunteer efforts in RSVP is that they are in a good position to receive help.
“They get to know the staff here and they know who to go to for help,” Jobe said. “They end up feeling more connected to resources.”
But this transition also creates a sense of inter-dependence.
“The ideal is that we try to build a community for them. A lot of them volunteer because they enjoy each other’s company,” Jobe said.
Spry, who first started volunteering in 2002, agrees that offering his time has made his life better.
“It has given me a better attitude in the world,” he said. “I enjoy each morning. I get up on my own feet. Yes, I have aches and pains, but that doesn’t stop me. Knowing what people need, and helping them get it, and knowing that there are organizations like the Boone County Council on Aging to help old people... well that should make anyone feel good.”
Another change in the way seniors help seniors is the increasing number of baby boomers now reaching retirement. Jobe is currently writing a grant proposal to the National Council on Aging so that RSVP can find new and different ways to recruit baby boomers. “Nonprofits increasingly need to think about creative ways to serve growing segments” of the population, Jobe said.
In Columbia, this will have ramifications for the nature of senior volunteer work.
“Different segments of the senior volunteer population have different volunteer interests and motivations,” Jobe said. “Younger boomers (ages 55 to 65) sometimes prefer less traditional volunteer roles in terms of flexibility and creativity. This might translate into more sporadic assignments or high impact roles where they can address a pressing community need or issue that interests them and then move on to something else.”
Jobe said the members of the can-do generation might fill roles as volunteer consultants, strategic fundraisers or even provide computer services for nonprofits. But she said that the traditional roles of senior volunteers in programs like Meals on Wheels will always be key to their service in the community.
Near the end of his route, Dale Sechler waits around the back of a house, meal delivery in hand. After a while, an elderly woman opens the door. She has a bright sunny face and wears a shawl over her head. “God bless you,” she says with a German accent as she takes the meal. “Thank you. Thank you.”