While I’ve long volunteered on various boards, environmental cleanup crews, and local libraries; enjoying the satisfaction that comes with giving back or paying it forward; this was my first time volunteering for an independent living center. That it was a workcamping situation, trading for 3 meals a day and a full hook-up site (less electric bill) made it an extra good deal. And that Excapees CARE Center benefits fellow RVers in an independent living setting made it priceless!
Part of the Escapees RV Club in Livingston, TX that I reviewed, founder Kay Peterson saw the need for continuing care in aging RVers. Differentiated from an assisted living facility, an independent living center requires that residents be able to get to meals independently with a minimum of assistance. Membership includes full hook-up site, meals, light cleaning of the RV, laundry service, onsite nursing staff, transportation, activities, and more.
Crystal, the much-loved volunteer coordinator at CARE, did a phone interview and background check before informing me there was an opening during the month of March, and assigned me a teammate, Grayce, who lives in the park when not RVing, and already knew the ropes. I was surprised to learn that several of the current residents had been past volunteers. Driving a golf cart through the park on an errand, I had a “flash” of my own future there. Not a bad place to eventually park the RV…
The biggest surprise during my 6 week stay was that I completely changed my paradigm regarding aging. Longtime readers of my Overtly Simple blog may recall the struggles I faced during my father’s battle with Parkinson’s Disease resulting in extensive nursing home care before his death two years ago. His mother had spent 15 years in a nursing home when Alzheimer’s Disease was just being explored by the medical profession. His father lived much longer, but was resigned to life in a nursing home before he passed away. On my mother’s side, no one has lived long enough to get to the nursing home stage.
Change must start with the individual. Building on inner strength and self-confidence we can develop the warm-heartedness that fosters concern for the welfare of others. Of course we have self-interest, but we should pursue our self-interest wisely by thinking of others, not foolishly and narrowly concerned only for ourselves. ~ Dalai Lama
So imagine my surprise when I arrived at CARE and made fast friends with my retired neighbors, 20 to 40 years my senior. They were busy gardening, managing computer networks, baking cakes, blogging, training new pets, and framing beautiful nature photography. Not to mention getting married, running a busy thrift store, traveling to musical events, and much more.
I saw firsthand the importance of community and social involvement. CARE (Continuing Assistance for Retired Escapees) is indeed the motto here, and is practiced across the board by the paid staff, volunteers, board of directors, and residents. Executive director, Russ, introduced himself at our orientation and said “This is a magical place.” He is so right!
Some residents are only here for a few months, perhaps recuperating from surgery or an illness. Others came because their declining spouse needed support and stayed on. Still others arrived as singles seeking an extended family, and will stay as long as they can live independently. No one remains alone for long here, as loving care abounds.
Four teams of volunteers (mostly couples but a few singles) park their RV’s adjacent to the facility and amongst the 40 resident RV’s (about half contain couples). Working two days on, two days off, I averaged 35-40 hours a week, which includes night-time hours when the main phone line was forwarded to my cell phone. This way, residents always have a helping hand at the other end of the line, day or night.
On our “On Call” day, Grayce and I unlocked the building, fielded phone calls from residents regarding their meal plans that day, and greeted each diner. After each meal we sanitized tables and chairs, wrapped fresh silverware, and vacuumed. Several times we drove folks to their medical appointments, or to do shopping or banking in town.
At night we played Wizard (a fun card game common in many RV parks) and locked the building at night. If a resident failed to check in by a certain time, we followed up with a phone call or visit. And their friends inquired if they failed to show up as planned. Everyone is a vital part of the fabric of this community.
The next day was our “Kitchen Duty Day”. After each meal we washed serving trays, utensils, and cookware. My favorite duty came at lunch and dinner time, assisting the cooks with serving salad or dessert with a smile. The menu was varied and the cooks knew by heart those who needed sugar-free options, who avoided leafy greens, and whose allergies needed to be accounted for. As a wheat- and dairy-free eater, I really appreciated the options offered at most meals.
During the month of March is the annual CARE Fair – a week long health fair open to the local community, and major fundraiser for CARE. Yvonne, myself and 25+ others sold samples of our homemade soups during the Soup Fest. There was a fabulous Rib & Brisket BBQ one evening, and residents and volunteers were invited to attend gratis. Proceeds from these fundraisers were voted on by residents to be used for kitchen updates. Last year, a handicapped accessible van was purchased.
Several speakers presented topics such as Allergy Management, Estate Planning, and Healthy Habits. I was hugely grateful to receive a free onsite mammogram, as I had no insurance coverage at the time. Low cost blood tests were offered, as well as audiology screenings and other diagnostics. CARE is staffed with a full-time nurse, Judy, who is the perfect blend of compassion and professionalism.
While about half of residents maintained their own vehicle, the remainder utilized a fleet of mini-vans and small buses driven by volunteers or staff to travel to special events and Tuesday trips to Walmart. Many onsite services are available, including haircuts by Joe (who donates all proceeds to CARE), music concerts, religious services, and even a chair yoga class taught by yours truly.
It was great as a new Texas resident to cast my vote in the Presidential Primaries in the backroom of the CARE Center. Now that’s a community service!
There were many other perks offered to us volunteers, like a thank you chocolate milkshake or meal after a car ride. Lightning fast Wi-Fi courtesy of George, a tech savvy resident. Even a free year extension to Day’s End Directory arrived in my inbox just yesterday. But the greatest rewards are the gifts of knowing that no traveler need ever be alone. That community can be created in a day. And that goodbye hugs are shorthand for “I love you, friend” and “See you next year!”
For more information on becoming a potential Escapees CARE Center volunteer or resident, click here.
To view the residents’ own Facebook page, click here.