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Thanks to Volunteers, Elderly Can Age in Place

  • Faiza Elmasry

Phyllis Ramberg, 85, lives alone in Hyattsville, Maryland, in the same house her parents lived in for many decades.

“Children keep asking me, ‘When are you going to move to one of those retirement villages?’ I say, ‘No, no. My friends are here, my church is close," Ramberg said. "I've got everything I need, right in this neighborhood.’”

A year ago, Ramberg was able to take care of her backyard; planting shrubs, pulling up weeds and raking leaves. This year, she just can’t do it herself.

“Things have changed somewhat," she said. "When illnesses happen, you just don’t have the capability that you thought you had before.”

That’s where “Aging in Place” comes in. The non-profit was founded two years ago to help seniors in the neighborhood with their daily needs. Founder Lisa Walker says she and her friends are among the seven percent of Hyattsville residents who are 65 or older.

“A number of my neighbors are also aound my age," Walker said. "We started talking about some of the concerns we had. Several of us had had issues with parents that were getting older and they were far away from them and didn’t know how to take care of them or get support.”

Seniors can call Walker's organization with a request, for example, asking for someone to shop for groceries, do small chores around the house or drive them to the doctor. Then a volunteer is assigned to provide the help.

“We have about 40 people that have signed up to be volunteers," Walker said. "About 30 of them have gone through background checks. If they’re driving, we check their motor vehicle records as well.”

Aging in Place volunteer Sally Middlebrooks says that a review of new volunteers’ driving record and any criminal history is just as important as the training they receive.

“We want the seniors, people we call neighbors, to be assured that they are with safe, reliable people who are also caring people,” Middlebrooks said.

Most of the calls are for rides to the doctor.

“They take me to all my medical appointments. Anytime I need something, I call them up," said Louise Battiste, who began using the group’s services last year. “Almost every week I have something, and they help me do what has to be done that I can’t do because I can’t see. I’m an old lady. I’m almost 90.”

The volunteers also reap some benefits.

“I’ve learned a lot about what I need to be thinking about myself in terms of staying connected to people, your family and friends," Walker said. "Do I stay close to them? Do I try to keep myself immersed in the community, relating to people younger than I am?”

“I’m learning a lot about this whole process of aging in my town and in my state and in my country," Middlebrooks said. "And I'm learning, to my alarm, that it's very difficult. But I’m also meeting people who astound me with their flexibility and their sense of humor and their ability to stay very much alive despite aches and pains.”

Not all Aging in Place volunteers are retired. Courtney Wattai, 24, is a graduate student at American University in Washington who studies caregiving and plans to have a career working with seniors.

“That’s kind of what I want to do because I want to make sure I’m able to improve their lives," Wattai said. "I want to be very involved in their lives, not just sitting at a desk doing things. I thought this would be a good way to give tribute to my grandparents and what they had done for me and my brother."

It makes Walker happy to see the younger generation stepping up. She hopes that’s how residents in her neighborhood will always care for each other.