Volunteer Spotlight – Ellen

Elaine Whitford Give_Receive_Care

After retiring from her teaching career in elementary education, Ellen wanted to find something worthwhile to give back to her community. She saw a blurb in her church’s bulletin on The Center for Volunteer Caregiving, and the opportunity appealed to her. Ellen has always enjoyed older adults and was very close to her grandmother. Since her former career focused on children, she felt a different population would be a nice change. She has found the right fit with The Center’s caregiver respite program as evidenced by her 9 years of volunteer service with The Center! Ellen says, “Anyone who is on the fence [regarding volunteering at The Center], you need to get off the fence and go for it. It is a very rewarding experience”. 

As a retiree, Ellen is able to volunteer during the week. She typically schedules a regular visit once a week for 3-4 hours and coordinates with the caregiver to determine the best day and time. Ellen does not feel that her volunteering takes much of her time, and she gets more out of it than she puts in. Ellen said, “[Volunteering] just makes me happier. Research has shown you do get more out of it and this has been proven to me over and over again.” Ellen develops close relationships with the people she volunteers with. One of the first care receivers she worked with fell and had to be moved to a skilled nursing facility. Ellen continued visiting her there until her death, and the care receiver always looked forward to seeing her.   

Ellen brings her positive energy and experiences to her volunteering role. She enjoys telling funny stories and engaging with her care receivers who often have cognitive impairments. When asked what personal advice she’d give to other volunteers she said, “Just be really friendly and engage them. Ask them questions about what they like to do. Suggest things if they are not sure.” Her current care receiver, Cotty, has dementia and short term memory loss. Having been an elementary school art teacher comes in handy and sometimes Ellen will have an activity planned for her visit, such as making snowflakes. Often they do jigsaw puzzles together. Ellen said, “[The best part of volunteering is] when I see them smile and laugh and know that they are having a good time.”

Ellen shares with her care receivers what she most enjoys. As she loves to garden, she brings her families flower bouquets handpicked from her yard. She also enjoys baking and, since Cotty loves sweets, brought her a piece of chocolate roll up cake and cream cheese peppermint sprinkles. Ellen adopts rescue animals and has both a rescue dog and cat. Her dog, Zephyr, has been trained as a service dog and she has, on occasion, taken her dog with her on visits if she knows that the care receiver loves animals. Ellen feels that sharing her life and interests can make her care receiver’s world fuller. As they age, show cognitive changes and are more isolated, their experiences can narrow. Ellen often shows pictures from her phone. When she traveled to Portugal, she was able to send the family pictures while abroad and recently showed Cotty pictures from her trip to the Alamo. She shares pictures of her flowers, garden and yard. “Often, what you think is fun they’ll think is fun as well!”

Not only does this relationship benefit the volunteer and care receiver but the caregiver as well who is the primary focus of the caregiver respite program. “I really think the caregiver is happier, more open, and has a better attitude… they have something to look forward to.” Cotty’s daughter and caregiver, Martha, says, “Ellen has been with us for about a year and what a delight she is. She is always so upbeat and cheerful with my mom. Together, they have become a great jigsaw puzzle-solving duo. Although mom is always glad for my return, she hates for Ellen to leave. Ellen goes over and above to make mom feel special and is such a blessing to our lives.”