On Thursday, July 13, 1995, a heat wave hit Chicago. Over the next three days, with temperatures in triple digits, 739 people died of heat-related causes.
Later analysis revealed that most of those who died were elderly and poor. Many lived alone. Other studies of natural disasters confirm the pattern: Those most at risk are elderly and isolated.
Aware of the hazards inherent in isolation and loneliness, the Broome County Council of Churches and other groups have worked hard to ensure that those who live alone are contacted daily, just to be sure they are okay. Volunteers for Meals on Wheels don’t just deliver meals — they are integral members of a social network designed to ensure that those who are alone are not left behind.
But these organizations also highlight another theme: Those among us who are aging are not just “victims”; they are also actors. They are both the recipients of services and the providers of services.
As our community seeks recognition as an aging-friendly community, we can build on this connective network by celebrating access to our rich array of organizations that rely on volunteers and are constantly in search of new members. The key to understanding this challenge is recognition that the impulse to help others and the desire for community are deeply intertwined.
It was only after I retired that I came to appreciate the scale and diversity of organizations in Broome County that contribute to the quality of our lives and provide opportunities for service. Our religious institutions have long served the needs of aging congregants; they are not alone. The Office for Aging, Action for Older Persons, Faith in Action and the Retired Seniors Volunteer Program all provide services and create opportunities for volunteers.
Recently, I’ve become aware of two exciting opportunities for volunteer engagement. The Broome County Promise Zone, led by Binghamton University’s Center for Civic Engagement, seeks to connect volunteers with students at risk in participating school districts (bcpromisezone.org/get-involved). Volunteers establish mentoring relationships with students and work to keep them engaged with school. The Literacy Legacy Project, spearheaded by Lisa Strahley, of SUNY Broome’s Center for Civic Engagement, focuses on enriching children’s exposure to language and reading, and seeks volunteers as its program gets started (email@example.com).
When people are busy raising families and pursuing careers, the appeal of volunteering might be limited. There are, after all, only so many hours in the day. But as we age, children grow up and leave home, family ties are weakened by distance, and volunteering can take on new and important roles. We find new opportunities to put our skills to work and new audiences with which to share our interests. New connections are created and new friends made, new purposes are discovered and new communities emerge.
We need to recognize shared interests here. Broome County’s retired citizens provide a rich vein of skills and capabilities, needing only to be connected to service organizations in search of volunteers with their skills and experience.
Chris Rounds is a Johnson City resident.