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Volunteerism adds purpose to retirement's leisure time

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by Jan K. Allen

SBJ Contributing Writer

"Starting the second half of life, it's important to have a purpose," said Louann Trent, director of Senior Advantage of Cox Health Systems.

Today, people can spend as much as 25 percent of their lives in retirement, according to Christine Price, assistant professor in the gerontology program at Southwest Missouri State University.

Many people look forward to retirement as a time for leisure, but as people are living longer and staying healthier, they want more from their retirement years.

Although hobbies, travel and playing with the grandchildren can take up a portion of this post-work leisure time, many seniors feel the need to have some structure, engage in constructive activity and contribute to the community, Price said.

A great number of these people do not want the commitment of a regular job with set hours and do not need additional income. But they still have the need to feel useful and productive and use the skills of a lifetime in service to others.

Both Cox and St. John's offer senior programs that provide a variety of educational and informative outlets of interest to seniors.

The Senior Advantage program at Cox runs a continuous schedule of free seminars on both medical and non-medical subjects.

It provides assistance for seniors with health care and advanced care directives, and provides periodic social events for entertainment and fellowship.

Both of the local hospitals provide volunteer programs for seniors.

"Today's senior is still young at heart," Trent said. "It's important for them to have a purpose."

Cox offers volunteer programs within the Senior Advantage system and other volunteer positions at Cox facilities through Director of Volunteer Service Linda Bolin.

At St. John's some senior volunteers have been trained to help people fill out lengthy Medicare, supplemental insurance and long-term care forms.

Volunteers also work at numerous other positions in the hospital and are a vital part of the system, said Valerie Griffin, coordinator of senior services.

The volunteers do everything from clerical work to acting as ambassadors and visiting patients.

Through the senior program there is a monthly session focusing on a particular area of the hospital with someone on hand to answer questions. There is a quarterly "Dine with the Docs" meeting at which specific illnesses or procedures are discussed by a specialist in the field.

One of St. John's most successful seniors programs is its regularly scheduled computer classes. More than 400 people have gone through the program, which is entirely run by volunteers.

Retiree Bill Patrick and his wife started the program with a group of computer enthusiasts known as the Icon Computer Group. Patrick said some graduates of the eight-session course have gone on to assist other beginners in the program and have joined the Icon group.

An extra benefit above and beyond the classes is the group's monthly meetings where members have become friends as well as colleagues.

A recent medical journal article reported, "Volunteering sets off a chemical reaction in the brain that helps the immune system." And it does even more emotionally, said Rowena Jones, director of the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, or RSVP.

Participants in the program say they get back much more than they give. They feel a part of the mainstream and aspire to live each day to the fullest, Jones said.

RSVP, a program sponsored by the Council of Churches of the Ozarks and the United Way, offers a diverse menu of opportunities for putting one's talents to work. Jones said every person has a gift of some kind, and she likes to help people discover what jobs they enjoy most. She also provides guidance, in helping seniors avoid burnout by not starting off too big.

A lot of people in the program volunteer for as many as 20 hours per week, but more commonly people work about four to 10 hours per month, Jones said.

Hours worked are reported to the program director, and insurance is provided for those hours. Transportation by van is available for those without their own transportation. The vehicles are driven by RSVP volunteer drivers.

St. John's Griffin said she feels one of the biggest reasons some seniors hold back from active retirement is the stereotype they have of themselves. She also found that many people who are too shy to step forward are eager to share their time when asked.

"Retirement can be a positive thing," said SMSU's Price. Retirees are making a difference in the community. Like Bill Patrick, many are sharing their skills and knowledge with other seniors, to the enrichment of both parties.

In addition to resources available through area programs and agencies, local libraries and bookstores are full of material to help seniors cope with any situation, feel good about themselves and realize their full potential in the latter years of their lives.

PHOTO CAPTION:

Bonnie Gray, right, and J.W. Williams do a few leg lifts with the Sit 'n' Be Fit fitness class for senior citizens at Cox North. The class is led by Fitness Trainer Susan Barr.[[In-content Ad]]

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