I’ve had many memorable experiences volunteering at Iona’s Active Wellness Program, but one particular instance really sticks out in my mind. One day I arrived for what I anticipated to be a run-of-the-mill day at the program. However, my supervisor, Courtney reminded me that there was a field trip scheduled to the US Botanic Gardens. She asked me if I wanted to go, and of course I obliged. I had boarded the bus with Courtney and seven senior citizens, when Courtney made the announcement that something came up and she had to stay back at St. Alban’s. This situation felt strange. Here I am, a 19-year old college sophomore, responsible for seven people all over the age of 65. Was I their chaperone? I panicked. How could Courtney leave me in charge of such a big responsibility? I was just a volunteer! At this moment, I realized my worth as a volunteer; I truly felt like I was contributing something to the program. My day at the Botanic Gardens “chaperoning” the group of seniors was incredible. I watched them explore the gardens, ask intuitive questions, educate themselves, and socialize with each other. Many of them had lived in DC for their entire lives and had never once visited the gardens. I felt fortunate that I could be a part of a program that provided such experiences for them, even at an advanced age. They taught me that you really are never too old for exploration and new experiences. (Please excuse my cliché)
Since I decided to associate my CSLP service project with my Strategies in Stress Management class, I was often in tuned to potential stressors that senior citizens face, and how they cope with them. I found that while they aren’t always aware of it, simply participating in the Active Wellness Program was a crucial form of stress management in their lives. In just three 3.5-4 hours, participants have access to organized physical activity, a nutritious lunch, and various opportunities to socialize. I spoke extensively one day to a widowed woman who lives down the street from St. Alban’s. She told me that she comes in every day because she is not going to cook food just for herself. For seniors, it is a hassle to get to the grocery store and buy food for one person. Why buy fresh fruits and vegetables, when I can’t eat them fast enough by myself before they go bad, she asked me. Receiving a free, hot lunch each day relieves some stress that seniors, especially single seniors, feel surrounding personal food preparations.
I noticed that another way seniors relieve some of the stress of living on their own, is simply by talking. I learned that one of the best things I could do for some of the participants who are clearly quite lonely, was to listen. I spent a lot of time simply sitting with seniors and listening to what they had to say. I listened to many, many stories. I listened to stories about when they were in college, when they traveled to India and China with their spouse, when they backpacked through Europe, when they moved to the United States from Columbia 40 years ago, and generally things they enjoy doing in their free time. I truly learned so much from listening to what these seniors had to say. I could tell that they enjoyed talking about their lives as well. I realized that we, as human beings, really just seek connection and social interaction with others, no matter what age. Seniors that live alone can often suffer from mental and physical health issues because they are simply lonely. Programs like Iona’s Active Wellness Program successfully counters this by giving active seniors an opportunity to remain social human beings.