During my 10 years of volunteering in nursing homes and other senior facilities, I’ve thought a lot about my role. Here’s how I see it: As a volunteer musician, I don’t have the background or training that staff members have. I’m an extra; they’re the main players. I depend on their expertise to keep things running smoothly and safely. But in reality, the division of labor blurs and I am called upon in unexpected ways.
For example, one Sunday evening in my early days as a volunteer, I arranged to play the piano in a dementia unit. I took my place at the battered upright in the activities room. The staff brought the residents in, got them seated, then disappeared. Forty-five minutes later, when it was time for my listeners to go “home,” I didn’t know where their rooms were. And given the memory-care setting, neither did they. Like it or not, it was up to me to supervise my distraught audience while we waited together for their caretakers to return.
A few years later something much scarier happened, and I started to think very seriously about the need for staff-volunteer teamwork.
Terry lived in a large, state-of-the art continuing care center. Every Saturday morning at 11, he came with his group from the dementia wing to the chapel for a hymn sing. A corps of volunteers worked alongside staff to manage the weekly event: I played the piano, Jane led the singing, assorted others helped bring residents to and from their rooms. Terry always rolled to his spot next to Jane. With his beautiful voice and knack for harmonizing, he was our star bass.
One Saturday, at the end of the singing, Terry waved goodbye and joined a loosely organized stream leaving the chapel. I headed to a deserted lounge down the hall where I got good cell phone reception.
A few minutes into my weekly chat with my mom in South Carolina, I glanced up to see Terry at the top of a staircase, jockeying his wheelchair into position for an accidental free-fall to the lower level.
I hurried to him. “I’m going back to my room,” he told me, as I pulled his wheelchair away from the staircase edge and tried to tamp down my panic.
I don’t know how Terry ended up poised for a horrific tumble. I’m just glad I was there at that moment, part of a team looking out for him.
Copyright © 2013 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.