In the summer of 1993, I had no luck finding a summer job (partly due to having no idea what I was doing) and instead spent the summer volunteering at a local nursing home. It was a very rewarding experience that helped me to grow in a variety of ways. Here are some of my reflections on what I learned:
- Volunteers get a certain amount of privilege on account of not being paid. If a volunteer wants to arrive late or leave early or only do certain types of work, the paid staff are likely to accommodate them.
- At the same time, staff are reluctant to give any real responsibility to volunteers because they can disappear at any time.
- Not everyone who volunteers is coming from a place of privilege. Some volunteers are paid by nonprofits or companies to get work experience or to meet the institutions' own social goals. Some are doing community service hours as a requirement to graduate or stay out of jail. That doesn't change the fact that they're there to help.
- Not every resident in a nursing home is old or has memory problems. But a lot of them are and do.
- Some residents haven't been outside in years. Taking them for a walk (or a push in a wheelchair) can be very rewarding.
- Old people have fascinating stories to tell, and they are eager to tell them, but not to each other! They're even more eager to hear their own stories told back to them. They may need to be reassured that they made a difference and will be remembered.
- Everybody dies. I spent a lot of time that summer thinking about my own mortality and what it would be like to have a terminal illness, which probably helped me cope when I got my leukemia diagnosis.