Deb Simon planned to work, she said with a laugh, “until I was too crotchety to work any longer.”
Life, however, has a way of throwing curve balls, and hers led her to Saturdays surrounded by peace and plants at the greenhouse at Maumee-based Sunshine Communities, which supports people with developmental disabilities.
“Here, I can deadhead flowers to my heart’s content,” said the 68-year-old Simon, whose own home is overflowing with philodendron, coleus, amaryllis and other greenery.
For Jim Nally, the “curve ball” earlier this week was really a bright yellow shower puff recently purchased for this occasion. The spongy blob was being whipped at his head by a giggling Cameron Darr, a 23-year-old resident of Sunshine, as staff nearby prepared an afternoon snack.
“We started this because it was the right thing to do – to give back,” said Nally, who with his wife, Bonnie, volunteers at Sunshine several times a week. “But instead of giving, we get so much back. These now are our friends.”
Simon and the Nallys have discovered what a lot of seniors have found these days: Purpose doesn’t end with a last regular paycheck or when the last child moves out. Rather, volunteering offers dividends that a growing body of research just now is starting to measure.
Among those collecting data is the federal Corporation for National and Community Service (CNSC), which this week celebrates senior volunteers. The CNSC has found that older Americans who regularly volunteer report improved health, decreased anxiety and less depression. Additionally, they’re less likely to report loneliness and social isolation and more likely to report higher life satisfaction.
The agency estimates that 21 million Americans 55 and older contribute more than 3.3 billion hours of service in their communities each year.
For many like Simon and the Nallys, volunteering offers the opportunity to share passions and pastimes with others, said Lori Richard, manager of Volunteer Services at Sunshine.
Volunteers play critical roles at Sunshine, which offers residential, vocational, clinical, spiritual and recreational programs in its longtime mission to create community.
No longer tied to a career or running kids to practice, older volunteers especially can spend time developing meaningful relationships, Richard said. They also assist staff in taking on office projects, answering phones, pruning the landscape or – in Simon’s case – tending the greenhouse, which allows regular staff to focus more on individuals.
Since January 1, 2016, 82 volunteers 65 and older have logged at least 4,890 hours at Sunshine.
“Their time is invaluable to staff, but especially to those we support,” said Richard, who last month handed Simon a 2018 Volunteer Impact Award for her work.
Chris Keran gets that – the anticipation of being part of something larger than herself. Still, at 67, she’d had enough of e-mails and deadlines by the time she walked out of the Sunshine’s Admissions Office, where she was its director.
Just months later, she stepped behind the customer service counter at Georgette’s Grounds & Gifts, the uptown Maumee coffee and gift shop run by Sunshine. Keran volunteers her time there not only with friends from Sunshine, but also with shoppers as they peruse the shelves at the fair trade gift shop.
“I love the interactions every day, and I love the conversations that begin with ‘Are you familiar with Sunshine?’ In some ways, it’s an extension of what I did before,” she said, adding with a laugh, “but with a whole lot less stress.”
The Nallys echo that sentiment.
“We weren’t bored after we retired,” said Jim Nally, who retired from a career in business development, “but I think we didn’t feel we had the same amount of purpose.”
While Simon was connected to Sunshine after her grandson was diagnosed with disabilities, and Keran spent her career there, the Nallys heard about Sunshine when their church, Little Flower Catholic Parish, welcomed Sunshine to build two new family care homes next to its campus. The couple toured the new homes and they were touched by the infrastructure needed – lifts and wheelchairs and adaptive toileting equipment – that helps the residents with activities of daily living.
In the give-and-take equation of volunteering, they assumed they’d be the givers, and they wondered about the energy it would take for an hour or two of volunteering each week.
Six months later, they stop by Sunshine’s Maumee campus several times a week. They carry in with them books and toys and games – items they’ve purchased for the residents. It was Jim’s idea to buy shower puffs for Cameron, who loves to throw.
As Jim was ducking the shower puff this day, Bonnie Nally was rocking one of Sunshine’s newest residents – a baby boy smiling at her with giant eyes and a gummy grin.
“I think I see teeth coming in, don’t I?” she cooed.
With a grandson and a track meet waiting, the Nallys packed up their bags and headed out to the parking lot, saying good-bye to those in the hallway. They are familiar faces now around Sunshine, known to some almost as adoptive grandparents.
“If you watch us, you’ll notice that our step is quick when we walk in each time and not so quick when we walk out. Some of that is that we’re worn out after a couple of hours,” Jim Nally said, chuckling. “The other part is that we’re leaving something wonderful each time.”