Help wanted: must wear smile

Rev. Alden Besse
Pet Therapy Recognition Day was held at Windemere on Oct. 19. The Rev. Alden Besse blessed the animals and spoke about the significant part pets play in our lives. Each pet therapy dog received a gift basket, Chris Porterfield and the kitchen staff prepared special food for the party, and some staff members and other volunteers brought their own pets too. Betsy Burmeister said the residents had a wonderful time and hopes to make this an annual event. Photo by Betsy Burmeister

By Pat Waring - November 8, 2007

It just might be one of the best jobs around. The qualifications are modest; hours super-flexible, and the rewards - appreciation and good will by the ton - are great. Co-workers and clients alike will welcome you with open arms; working conditions are pleasant, warm, and bright. Being a Windemere volunteer is easy, fun, and the gratitude that it brings is more precious than gold.

Windemere Nursing and Rehabilitation Center currently has an urgent need for more volunteers according to recreation director Betsy Burmeister. The facility relies on several dozen generous volunteers for a wide range of services - everything from reading aloud and running bingo games to helping escort residents to and from activities. Even the simplest task like having a friendly conversation with an older Islander or helping pass out desserts in the dining room can make a big difference.

According to Ms. Burmeister, a number of volunteers have left recently, some departing after years of service, others simply heading south for the winter or making time for other commitments. Their absence leaves Ms. Burmeister and her co-worker, Alzheimer's therapist Rachel Cottle Shea, scrambling to fill in the blanks and respond to all the residents' needs. The department has a very limited budget, and cannot afford to pay for the many small but meaningful tasks that keep the residents' days flowing smoothly and happily.

Photo by Susan Safford
Last week, Ms. Burmeister placed a "Desperately Needed" advertisement in The Times and is hoping that a few Vineyarders will come forward to make life more pleasant for their elderly neighbors. Although she listed several specific needs in the ad, Ms. Burmeister said that volunteers are welcome in any capacity they wish. She admits that sometimes it has been difficult to find volunteers. But she believes that people may apply when they realize that the time commitment can be minimal (even one or two hours a week will be appreciated!) and that duties can be custom tailored to the volunteer's life and interests.

"Whatever anybody can think of," Ms. Burmeister says.

In an interview published in The Times several months ago, Ms. Burmeister wrote about "Mail Lady" Doris Gaffney's enthusiasm for volunteering.

"Doris encourages everyone with an hour or two to spare to volunteer. 'No matter what your age you can sit and visit with people,' she says. 'I'm just an old lady of 87; it makes me feel younger to be here. Whatever time anyone spends here, you'll find you take away more than you give.'"

Jobs range from the practical, like assisting as host or hostess in the dining room and wheeling or walking residents from place to place, to the just plain fun. For many years, volunteer Dorothy Bangs has played the piano for sing-alongs on a regular basis. With a repertoire of 40s music, Ms. Bangs plays a few notes and residents chime in, identifying the tune.

Ms. Bangs, who plays by ear, gives the lyrics and the group sings along with enthusiasm. "You can't imagine how much fun it is and how much I get out of it, which I'm sure is more than I give," she says. "For me it's a fun time."

Ms. Bangs also enjoys working with Ms. Burmeister and praises her heartily - "she's a prize."

Nancy Cabot and Betsy Harrington conduct art groups. Volunteer Louise Horton assists in several areas including the dining room and bingo games, and Doris Gaffney delivers mail and visits with the residents. Marion MacKay offers a knitting group, Windemere Woolies, as well as helping with Friday dinners. Some volunteers play cards or chess with the residents; some work on colorful crafts or help them write letters. On sunny days volunteers may escort the residents outdoors for sunshine or a visit to the garden, or just settle down indoors for a conversation.

Even youngsters can provide a cheering presence, like the Chilmark students who visit with their teachers regularly. "The kids are volunteers in a sense," says Ms. Burmeister.

Animal visits provide bright spots in the residents' daily routine and a number of volunteers bring dogs in to visit. Several of these are specially trained therapy dogs, but others are just friendly, healthy, well-behaved animals that love people. Everyone welcomes Chris Brooks of West Tisbury and his golden retriever Sam when they come by for their regular visits. Sam, a certified therapy dog, makes his rounds cheerfully, greeting the residents and soaking up the affection. "He's a good dog," says one petite, curly-haired woman seated in her wheelchair as she strokes Sam's silky head and he nuzzles her in return.

Mr. Brooks says that even some of the Alzheimer's patients who do not usually speak, brighten up and greet Sam when he arrives. "Sam loves the attention," he says. "If I ask him does he want to go to work he gets all excited."

Thanks to volunteers, Windemere has a Wheel of Fortune game, and movies shown in the bright recreation room. Sofia Anthony and The Times advertising staffer Carrie Blair call Bingo games. Ed Larkosh and Abbie Dreyer drop in often with a jazz program of old favorites.

When it comes to qualifications, all that's required is an upbeat attitude and the willingness to spend a little time with older Vineyarders. Volunteers can create their own programs or just pitch in wherever needed. Only being able to work for a month or two or only on a sporadic schedule is not a problem, Ms. Burmeister says.

"You have to smile and be upbeat," says Ms. Burmeister. "There are no special skills. Just a good happy attitude and compassion for the elderly."

For more information on volunteering at Windemere, contact Betsy Burmeister, 508-696-6465, ext. 722.