Juneau seniors are aging actively, keeping healthy through volunteer work.

Posted: Wednesday, November 07, 2001

The secret of youth isn't an elixir, but an action, and Juneau seniors are taking all they can.

"We have discovered one thing about this aging thing," said Ellen Northup, director of the Juneau Senior Center. "It's if you do keep active, whether it's volunteering or working, you do live longer and you live better."

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Juneau seniors realize the benefits of keeping busy. Almost 80 percent belong to a club, organization or church and nearly 40 percent volunteer, based on a 1998 survey for the Juneau Committee on Aging. Ten percent of seniors also take classes through the University of Alaska Southeast or Community Schools.

"It's more interesting and satisfying than just being a tourist or sitting home watching TV," said Elizabeth Cuadra, who has volunteered with a number of organizations in Juneau.

At 68, Cuadra is what National Senior Service Corps Director Bob Piggott refers to as a "new senior." The service corps coordinates older volunteers. New seniors make ideal volunteers because they have both energy and time, Piggott said.

Cuadra has volunteered at the Friends of the Library Amazing Bookstore and the Juneau Pioneers' Home, and spent two years in Nepal as a Peace Corps volunteer and a week as a volunteer teacher at a Hopi reservation in Arizona.

"I'm retired, I have time and I still want to have contacts with people," said Cuadra, vice president of the Southeast Alaska Master Gardeners.

Loneliness and boredom can harm elderly people the most, said Kathy Kloster, director of Wildflower Court, a Juneau nonprofit nursing and assisted-living home. "The elderly who are able to stay active in some way and contribute, they're the elderly who stay satisfied in their lives."

About 100 seniors volunteered 28,447 hours in Southeast through the National Senior Service Corps last year, director Piggott said. Many of the volunteers work with other seniors who may be isolated or depressed.

"The seniors tend to respond to their own peers a lot more quickly than they would to someone who was not of that generation," Piggott said. "A lot of our seniors go into another senior's home just to play cards with them or take walks. They know the senior's boundaries, they know what they can or can't do."

Even so, the need for volunteers to work with seniors is growing faster than the number of volunteers, Piggott said.

"The needs are needier. We have more requests for senior companions, for seniors to work with other seniors, than we have people available to do it," Piggott said.

Part of the difficulty is letting seniors know the benefits they receive as volunteers. The National Senior Service Corps provides a stipend of $2.55 an hour, transportation to the job site and a discount prescription card.

"The $2.55 helps a lot of seniors who are on fixed incomes. For some, the $2.55 is a lot of their food money and they count on that," Piggott said.

The work also gets seniors out of their homes, said Piggott.

"It allows them to be around other people," he said. "Most of our seniors work 20 hours a week, so it gets them very active."

Maxine McCoy agrees.

"When you make other people feel better, you feel better yourself," said McCoy, who answers the phone at the Senior Information Office at the Juneau Senior Center and helps other seniors with errands.

A 1998 survey of Juneau seniors found a third of them don't drive.

"There are people who are more or less shut-ins and you go pick up their groceries, get their mail, even pay their bills," McCoy said. The visit itself is what many of the older seniors need.

"You always feel better when you socialize. It really takes away a lot of stress," McCoy said. "And never stop learning. You're never too old."

Trish Murphy matches senior volunteers to classrooms, preschools and other places with kids. Often seniors resist at first, she said. They say they already raised their children, or have their own grandkids. But the regular contact with young people acts like an anti-aging serum.

"Seniors just seem to come alive," Murphy said. "Their eyes get brighter, the kids are climbing all over them, they know they're needed and it gives them something to do."

Debbie Tillinghast, coordinator of volunteers for Harborview Elementary School, said seniors come in at lunchtime to help students who are physically disabled. Some work in the library reading to groups.

"We've had a few very special ones," Tillinghast said. "The kids of course see them in the grandparent-type role and see it as a personal, friendly relationship instead of a principal- or teacher-type thing, so it usually works out pretty well."

When Nick Abello enters Linda Augustine's classroom each school morning, the fifth-graders greet him in chorus, "Good morning, Grandpa Nick."

"He provides that grandpa feeling in the classroom, which is really nice because he reminds kids of their own grandpa, who are out of town probably," Augustine said.

Abello's own grandchildren are still in the Philippines, so he enjoys the chance to help other children with their math and spelling. After 31 years as a school teacher and administrator, returning to the classroom as a volunteer seemed natural, Abello said.

"If by the end of the day I think I've done something, I'm happy," Abello said. "Because I always believe we're here for a purpose, and the purpose I'm here for is to help."

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