Life lessons

Volunteers at Windemere get back more than they give.

When recreational therapy director Betsy Burmeister says, “Oh, no! We couldn’t do it without them,” about the volunteers at Windemere Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, she means it. There are approximately 60 volunteers, who do everything from knitting with residents to teaching piano lessons to accompanying them for a game of bowling at the Barn Bowl & Bistro. They help set up for the monthly tea party, or they might pour the tea. And some of them come for specific residents; they’ve become close over the years.
We have six residents who have volunteers who come just for them. They read to them, visit with them … take them outdoors when it’s nice … take them to the rooftop garden of the hospital,” Betsy says. “Usually they come and read and visit or write letters, sit in the garden. The residents just like to have someone to talk to. They may have children, but their children are all working, and they come on nights or weekends, so it’s nice to have a friend of their own.”

The Times sat down with three Windemere volunteers to ask them why they do it, and what they receive in return for their time and dedication. Lois Virtue, 85, said she was the “baby of the group” when we chatted. Her friends Philip Dietterich, 88, and Ruth Schaffner, who will be 95 next month, didn’t seem to mind her joke. They’ve each been volunteers at Windemere for more than a decade.

Born and raised in a small town in Pennsylvania, Lois said she came to volunteer after her husband died. They had retired to the Vineyard, and she said she needed something to do. Someone suggested she talk to Betsy about volunteering.

I come three days a week,” Lois said. “I transport people two days, and on the third day I sit with a resident who loves to knit.” The resident was able to help a staff member who couldn’t figure out how to bind off on a scarf she was making, Lois said.

Once her children were grown and she retired after teaching first grade for 20 years, it made sense to volunteer. Lois said her grandchildren come to Windemere to help out when they come to visit her on the Island.

I asked if there were some aspect of volunteering that stood apart for her. Lois thought for a minute and then remembered an event from five or six years ago, when musician Wynton Marsalis and his quintet came to play at the Tabernacle and a group from Windemere went. One of the residents was blind, but Lois was describing the instruments to her.

I was sitting with this resident and trying to tell her what instruments were there. I got to the trombone and she said, ‘I can’t visualize what that looks like, I can’t remember.’ I saw a young man with the trombone and I asked him if he could come down and let her touch it and feel it. He handed it to me and I let her touch it. She said, ‘Oh, I remember it now!’ She was so excited about that concert. And he was so kind to do that. I’ll always remember that.”

Music is also what brings Phil Diettrich to Windemere. He’s been volunteering for around 15 years, he figures. A retired Methodist minister, Phil said there were three kids in his family in Buffalo where he grew up. “We were expected to take at least a year of piano and then try another instrument. My brother picked the trombone and my sister took up singing. Piano and keyboards is what I ended up with, the organ later in life.”

You could say Phil does a form of music therapy; he plays songs from the residents’ era, those they respond to the most — songs such as “God Bless America,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

It’ll conjure memories for them,” Phil said. “There are those who have trouble remembering and can’t find the words, but we do simple songs, songs they’ll know. Usually we do this once a week, and now I’m covering once a month for a worship service … I have a passion for music, but it’s neat when you hit a home run and you can do something they want.”

Add to that playlist all of the monthly birthday parties, the Halloween party, and special events like when the high school students bring the “prom” to Windemere. The Coasties dinner dance, when Coast Guard members come to visit in their dress uniforms and dance with the residents, was set to take place a week or two after we chatted.

My husband was in the Coast Guard,” Ruth added. It’s been a long time since the women residents danced with a man in uniform, she said.

Ruth was born in Michigan in 1924, and met her husband when she volunteered at the USO. “I worked for a clinic,” she explained. “There was such a shortage of nurses that they used secretaries to do some of it.”

She keeps busy on the Island volunteering at Windemere every week, going to her quilting group, and with her church, First Congregational Church in West Tisbury — “especially with the strawberry and peach festivals, and the Christmas wreaths.”

At Windemere she can be found pushing patients in wheelchairs, helping them get to events, and also just keeping them company. She says she’s become attached to the residents.

Over the years, I’ve met so many lovely people,” Ruth tells me. “I enjoy being here, and I hope I can continue. It’s good for me, because when you give you’re giving part of yourself. Then you receive a lot more than you give.”

Lois told the story of another resident who stood out for her. We had a woman here years ago, and I found out later that she was an opera singer. Her daughter was here that particular day … she was playing some music, and this woman very rarely said anything … This one day she was really humming along, and she turned to her daughter and said, ‘I really love you.’ The music had brought back the words for her.”

If you feel like you might not have anything to contribute at Windemere, think again, these volunteers said. You’re not too old to volunteer,” Lois said. “There will be something for you to do.”

Betsy will find something for you to do,” Phil said. “You can always fill in when others can’t come.”

Betsy said signing up to volunteer is easy. You can fill out an application form, and there is a background check. Betsy will go over the rules and regulations with you. She can always use a hand transporting residents, driving them out into the community in the van, and right now she could really use someone who could come and work on arts and crafts with the residents. And there’s always room for a visitor to chat with.

There are people here who would benefit from having a visitor,” Betsy said. “Some have a lot of family around, and some not as much.”

To find out more about volunteering at Windemere, email Betsy Burmeister at bburmeister@partners.org. You’ll be among friends.

1 COMMENT

  1. thank you all for what you do. years ago i “got volunteered” for recreational therapy at the long term care unit of the hospital. i would come every week and play piano – usually tunes from the 1940s that my parents would listen to. usually when i walked in, the residents would be pretty solemn but as soon as they saw me, their countenance would brighten. next thing you know some are up and dancing, many would be singing along. always, my last song was “till we meet again” and just about everyone was singing! music also got them talking and sharing with each other and me! it was a lot of fun.

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