Southeastern Alaska seniors help themselves and others

Posted: Wednesday, November 28, 2001

Runners experience a high, a sense of exhilaration and well-being caused by endorphins released into their bloodstream during the exercise. Besides "runner's high," there is also a "helper's high." Volunteers have reported similar, pleasant sensations during their work. Psychologists conducting experiments have confirmed there is a release of endorphins into the volunteer's bloodstream when volunteers interact with the people they are helping. People who tell us that volunteering is good for our health mean it literally! They are referring not only to our mental health and self-esteem, but to our physical health as well.

Senior citizens in Alaska didn't wait for this news, nor for the United Nations to proclaim 2001 the Year of the Volunteer, to help others. Alaskans are used to helping out in their communities. So, in 1984, when the National Senior Service Corps (NSSC) set up operations in Southeast Alaska, quite a few retired people over 55 were ready to pitch in. By June, 1998, seniors volunteering through NSSC/Southeast were logging 18,398 hours of volunteer work per year. Now, about 120 "retired" seniors in several of Southeast Alaska's communities serve in NSSC programs.

Foster Grandparents

Some volunteers are Foster Grandparents, who mentor and work with children and youth from prekindergarten to 18 years of age. Foster Grandparents help elementary and middle school students in several schools in Juneau and one in Hoonah, as well as at the Boys and Girls Club in Juneau, Johnson Youth Center and several other locations. For example, Nicomedes "Nick" Abello, who was a teacher in the Philippines, goes to Harborview Elementary School and works with kindergartners, and then helps fifth graders with math, before shifting over to the Boys and Girls Club on Fridays.

Some Foster Grandparents, such as Bunny Mercer, share their Tlingit or other Native Alaskan culture with their young friends. All the Foster Grandparents give the warmth and caring attention which elders all over Alaska advised, in "Helping Kids Succeed - Alaskan Style." Foster Grandparents are present in Juneau, Sitka, Hoonah and Haines doing wonderful things to help kids succeed. The National Senior Service Corps continues to recruit those special seniors age 60+ to volunteer as Foster Grandparents. Those who are income eligible receive a $2.55 per hour stipend.

Senior Companions

Senior Companions visit, help, and develop a continuing friendship with elderly clients, some of whom are homebound, while others lack relatives nearby or just need more social outlets. Sometimes, where the need is apparent, a Senior Companion helps the client locate additional supportive services. The Senior Companion program has volunteers in Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka, and Hoonah. In Southeast Alaska, Senior Companions currently assist about 470 seniors: 16 percent of these volunteers assist seniors suffering from Alzheimer's disease, 18 percent provide daily companionship at local senior centers, 25percent visit shut-in or homebound seniors on a daily basis, and 19 percent visit local residents of long-term care facilities.

Peer Counselors

Peer Counselors' work and client relationships are similar to those of Senior Companions, but Peer Counselors handle more demanding situations and need more training, which NSSC provides. Another difference is that Peer Counselors work as a member of a team that includes a professional in mental health services. Within Alaska the Peer Counseling Program exists only in Juneau. (See Senior Voice, March 2001, p. 22, for more information on the Peer Counseling Program.)

Retired and Senior Volunteer Program

Seniors age 55+ are invited to participate in the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP). These special volunteers provide a myriad of services to support community needs. For example, they provide staff support at local nonprofit agencies, work in public museums, and aid terminally ill patients. The wonderful thing about the RSVP program is that the National Senior Service Corps office can match a senior up with a particular project that fits the individual's interest. The volunteers of RSVP are not paid an hourly stipend, but are reimbursed for their volunteer mileage.

Senior Community Service Employment Program

Besides the three volunteer programs, the National Senior Service Corps/Juneau also addresses the needs of some seniors who wish to further a career. The National Senior Service Corps responds to their needs through the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP). The dual purposes of an SCSEP project are to provide useful part-time community service assignments for persons with low incomes who are 55+ years of age while promoting transition to unsubsidized employment.

Ward Lamb supports the SCSEP program as the Older Worker Specialist for Southeast Alaska. The Older Worker Specialist provides outreach, determines eligibility, completes intakes, assessments, orientation, places the enrollee into a community assignment, provides continued support and eventually assists the enrollee with transitioning into unsubsidized employment.

Administering These Programs in Southeast Alaska

All of these programs are administered by Bob Piggott, Southeast Project Director. The National Senior Service Corps is a Federal program administered by the Corporation for National Service, which also administers Americorps and VISTA. In Alaska the National Senior Service Corps program statewide is under the auspices of Alaska Community Service, Inc., governed by a board of directors with representation in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau. In Southeast, the project is supported by a local advisory council.

Bob Piggott and his team work from offices in the Mendenhall Mall, Juneau. Trish Murphy (a VISTA volunteer) coordinates the Foster Grandparent and Peer Counseling Programs, giving half of her time to each. Older Worker Specialist, Ward Lamb, provides 20 hours per week supporting the Senior Community Service Employment Program. Pat McGee acts as mission control central, providing all the secretarial support from her half-time position.

Bob Piggott hopes to be able to expand service in fiscal year 2002 to meet the needs of other unserved communities of Southeast Alaska. But, according to Bob, these are community based programs, which means that local communities need to support the efforts of the volunteers and the program as a whole. The National Senior Service Corps currently is working with various organizations, local governments as well as agencies, in these unserved communities to provide the community support.

Priceless Benefits

Bob Piggott has estimated the beneficial impacts of these programs. For the Peer Counseling Program, for example, Bob has estimated the cost savings, compared to what either the clients or a public entity would have to pay if the work had to be provided by paid professionals. For example, just seven Peer Counselors with a total of twelve clients would provide about 2230 hours of counseling services per year, saving $189,380 per year, compared to the alternative of a professional provider delivering similar services for about $85 per hour. And some clients are reluctant to seek professional help but welcome their contacts with Peer Counselors.

Priceless benefits accrue to children in the Foster Grandparents Program in increased literacy and self-esteem, and to clients in the Senior Companion and Peer Counseling Programs of having a happier life while being able to remain in their own homes and retain their cherished independence longer. Then there are the seldom-mentioned benefits to the volunteers themselves -- a more active life, the satisfaction of helping others, and a healthier life due to the "helper's high" and other benefits. It seems a wonder there are not more retired seniors lined up at the door, applying to become volunteers in one or more of these programs.

Elizabeth Cuadra lives in Juneau and has served as a volunteer in some of these programs.

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