by Charles E. Page
I retired from the New York Department of Labor in 1982 at the age of 61. I thought I would be “at loose ends” with nothing to do, so I decided to volunteer to help “old people”; that is, old people older than myself. (Or, how about “mature individuals?”)
I contacted the Madison County Office for the Aging and signed up.
I will tell, in a series of three parts, about some of my experiences as a volunteer. I selected the three following three programs that I felt most interested in. The income tax preparation program is an RSVP Program, and the transportation program is by OFA (Office of the Aging). They are two separate non-profit entieies, receiving some of their operating funds from various government agencies. The two agencies work together closely to the mutual advantage of all concerned. Such cooperation seems unusual for any two separate organizations, but it no doubt explains much of their success.
1. Income tax preparation
RSVP is the now commonly used “name” of the agency derived from the original “Retired Senior Volunteer Program”
Both RSVP and OFA came into being in the early 1970's. The present Director of RSVP in Madison County is Mary Bartlett, and Executive Director of OFA is Theresa Davis. (For those interested, OFA staff member, Constance Brown has compiled a “time line history” of the growth and evolution of Madison County OFA.)
Each year in January the call went out for volunteers to be trained to help Senior Citizens file their income tax returns. This program was administered by RSVP.
The IRS provided experts to meet with the volunteers, and educate them in preparation of all the necessary forms. Each year we were called in again to be updated on the new year's changes and to get a review of past rules. We were also given a “hot line” phone number direct to a person at IRS in Washington whom we could call for a quick answer to a problem we didn't know how to handle. Whenever I called IRS, a certain lady always answered, immediately, so that we could finish our client's return without delay. I got to know that lady's smooth, southern voice when she answered. I never asked her name. She was good at her job, and gave us the CORRECT information on the spot.
The volunteers living in the different parts of the County set up locations and hours where they would be available for anyone needing help. In Oneida we located at the Towers, the public library, and the old Washington Avenue school where the SNACK meals were then served.The service was free. It was a good feeling to be able to prepare the forms for an elderly person at no charge, who otherwise would have had to pay a large fee to a professional preparer, and that, for just a simple return. When returns were complicated and required more knowledge than we had, we had to recommend that the people go to a professional.
Sometimes a volunteer would work at a site alone, but often, two or three serviced one location. I preferred to work closely with another preparer and I arranged with a lady from Canastota to work with me. Since two copies of the returns are eventually made (one to send and one to keep), we decided we would both work on the same person's return and when finished, would compare figures, thus being pretty well assured of our accuracy. If there were a question about the correct reporting of something, we could discuss it, and decide what was right. Of course, now, in 2011 the preparers do it all on the computer, easily making as many copies as desired.
My working partner was Catherine Thomas. Her husband, Russell, in his retirement had a little vegetable stand on Oxbow Road near Canastota. He also, in the spring, made maple syrup by tapping his few box elder trees. It takes many more gallons of sap from those trees to get one gallon of syrup than from a sugar maple. The box elder is one kind of maple, sometimes called “ash leafed maple”. We worked together at this for over ten years until she moved away to be near their children. She was about ten years older than I, but I think sharper than I with the rules and figures.
We had lots of interesting experiences at that job. Many of the people did their own returns and brought them in to see “if they had done them right”. I remember one who brought in her completed return every year. One year I found a mistake which saved her $300. After that, she would come in and be disappointed that we couldn't save another $300 for her. But, she made very few mistakes,and never again that same one.
One year a young lady applied to become a volunteer who had not had our IRS training, but had taken a “training program” with one of the large professional tax firms. They didn't hire her after her training, and so she volunteered to help us. We were glad of more help, but, unfortunately, she just “didn't have it” with figures or with understanding the rules. We finally appointed her “receptionist” to greet the newcomers and check to see if they had brought all their papers plus the previous year's return. That did save us time.
Most of the people were appreciative of our help. A very few were just naturally “grumpy” and showed their impatience if they had to await their turn to see us, but most figured a wait was worth it since the service was free.
Sometimes, I would go to clients' homes if they requested it. (Now, in 2010, this practice has stopped because of liability insurance concerns).Some were friends or acquaintances. There were some interesting times there, too. One very elderly lady who lived on Elizabeth St. had been given my name by a friend. When I got to her home, I found that she didn't have many records, nor a copy of her last year's return. I looked through what records she had, but there was not enough information there to file a return. She didn't seem to understand why I couldn't do it. As I was about to leave her daughter drove in. She scolded her mother cruelly, saying such things as “You know I always do your tax returns!!” and “Why did you call somebody else??” The daughter stared at me as if I were there to perform some sort of fraud upon her mother. I felt sorry for the mother for her daughter's lack of understanding.
There were other interesting situations, some with the clients' handling of their money. I went to the home of one lady who was a neighbor of mine when I was a kid and had played with her brother. She seemed to have lost her financial common sense. For instance, she really just needed a little help taking a bath, and doing a few household chores, but she hired 3 registered nurses for “round the clock” care. She also bought a new car so that someone could drive her for groceries and doctor appointments. My concern was, after doing her tax return, I saw she had spent nearly all of her life's savings. I was relieved when, soon after that, I received a letter from her younger brother who lived in California, saying he was coming to Oneida to handle her affairs.
Another interesting case.... The widow of a minister, asked me to do her return. She had very little income, Social Security and a small pension from her husband's church. Her house had been furnished to her husband by the church, and the use of it was continued for her after he died. She was extremely generous with what little income she had. Her return showed her charitable donations equaled within a few dollars of her total income! Of course, she immediately received an inquiry from IRS. Such large claims of donations in relation to income was a “red flag” for fraud to IRS. I wrote the answer to IRS for her. She had written proof of all her charitable donations. No fraud, there! She received a lot of help of her friends. She had always been a helpful friend to her husband's flock and was revered by them. They made sure she didn't want for anything. One day I happened to drive by her house, and saw her outside shoveling snow from her sidewalk and driveway. I stopped and helped her finish. I told her to call me whenever she needed help, but she never did. She had tons of other friends who helped her.
A former school teacher whom I had occasionally transported from her home to SNACK, brought in all her records when she came in. She was a smart lady, but old age was getting to her. She had received 1099 forms from her stocks and other investments. She knew probably more than we did about what should be reported as income and what need not be. She knew all about these rules but could no longer focus her brain well enough to apply them to the paper return. Most 1099s told whether that particular yield was reportable as income, or not, but some did not. At such times we might have to call our hot line. As the years passed, we learned a lot, and didn't have to call the hot line as often.
All in all, it was a satisfying, as well as educational, experience.
C.E.P. Oneida, January 2011
Another valuable service offered to senior citizens, this one administered by OFA, was providing seniors with rides to doctors' offices and hospitals. I met many interesting people during my12-14 years as a volunteer driver.
Drivers were registered at the OFA office, and covered by insurance. Each volunteer indicated how they wanted to be scheduled. For instance, some would drive just one specified day of the week, or only in a certain area, or all kinds of other arrangements. I would get a call from the transportation coordinator asking if I would be available to take someone on a certain day or place. If I was unavailable, they would call another driver. I came to know the voices of the different coordinators when they called. I remember a lady named “Kit. Then, I also heard from “Anna Marie”, and all through those times, it was often “Connie” who called. Connie is still (2011) performing that great service. It is not an easy job to match drivers to clients and keep the scheduling straight.
I came to know some of my passengers quite well, as we visited on the way to their appointments, especially on the longer trips. My arrangement with the “office” was that I would drive only for out-of-town's. Most often, I was scheduled for Syracuse trips, but sometimes I drove to closer places such as Rome, Vernon, Verona, and occasionally Utica.
I went to all the hospitals, St. Joseph, Community, Crouse-Irving, and Upstate, V.A., as well as many doctors' offices in all kinds of buildings, some with parking garages, some with just parking lots located a distance away. In the latter cases I would deliver the rider to the destination office, and then take the car to the lot and walk back. Often I would obtain a wheel chair from a doctor's office, bring it to the car, and wheel the clients in, sometimes to upper floors using the elevator. This “distance”kind of driving helped the office scheduling, as many of the drivers wanted only “close-in” trips.
I had also arranged, not to have any set time each week that I would drive. I suggested that I be used as an “emergency driver”. I would accept drives any time, even “the last minute”. If a driver canceled a trip, or if the office were caught anytime without a driver. As I was retired, most of those times I could accept the assignment. It worked out well for all parties. I didn't like the idea of having things scheduled ahead of time and feel "tied down” to any schedule, but with this arrangement I don't remember ever turning down a request to drive.
One of the riders once confided in me saying a certain driver who had driven her before, grumpily told her to tell the doctor's receptionist to “hurry it up, as a driver was waiting”. You can't “hurry” a doctor! He has scheduled patients to take care of. I always planned that my drive might be an “all day job” and expected each time it might turn into a full day. No pressure! No hurry! Just relax! We have all day!!
Depending on where and the “estimated” length of the appointment, I would spend my waiting time napping in the car, or more often, exploring the building or hospital. I came to know my way around the hospitals, first, the location of rest rooms, second, the cafeteria, and then, the locations where different services were provided. Also, I explored the tunnel connecting Upstate with Crouse-Irving. Such knowledge came in handy in future visits. If I knew my wait would be lengthy, and the weather was good, I would kill time and get exercise by walking around in the streets.Once I explored the Carrier Dome and some of the University buildings, like the old Crouse Fine Arts building where my older sister years ago had attended her oil painting classes. Each room had an atmosphere of its own. In some it was obvious from the paint stains on the walls and floor what had taken place there. Other rooms were occupied by pianos. My younger sister had once practiced her piano lessons there.
An interesting passenger from Canastota, usually had an appointment at Upstate Hospital in Syracuse. He had always been a smoker and was trying to break the habit. He brought his portable oxygen tank with him. He always had a cigar in his mouth! However, he wasn't smoking it! The plastic wrapping was still on it. Apparently it made him more comfortable to have something in his mouth.
A man in Chittenango had served in the US Army at one time. He was constantly bragging about his exploits as a tough guy. Then he became a truck driver. He kept telling me what a “macho” guy he was. He claimed he was real “tough”. “Nobody messed with me. I was a truck driver”. On one trip he constantly complained that after all his service in the Army, the law enforcement officials would not now issue him a hand gun permit. “It's just politics. These people in Chittenango don't like me”.
As far as I was concerned, I was glad to hear it! I would hate to have him running around carrying a pistol.
Some trips resulted in bad news for my rider. One gentleman came out of the doctor's office seeming quiet and depressed. He told me that the doctor had told him, there was nothing more he could do for him. He had an inoperable brain tumor. What could I say??
When I first started volunteering for transportation, I agreed to take anyone the office referred. I later agreed to take only the Seniors, not young people. There were plenty of oldsters to keep me busy. One of the times I took a lady to Syracuse for kidney dialysis (across the street from St. Joseph's Hospital) She brought a pad to put under her on the car seat. She explained she sometimes couldn't “hold it”. We got as far as Fayetteville, when she said she had to get to a rest room. I don't remember if it was a gas station or was at Friendly's Restaurant, but we made it in time.
Often, when we arrived at a doctor's office I had to go in and bring out a wheel chair to take my rider in. I came to learn which offices had wheel chairs available for patients to use. At first I often took the patient's own folding wheel chair in the car with us. They were heavy and hard to handle. One time I hurt my back getting one in the car's trunk. It was not long after that, the office forbade the transporting of wheel chairs that way. It was too hard on drivers.
At first, I agreed to take two passengers together, if their appointment times made it possible. It seemed that I could take one patient to his doctor and then go across town for the other one. The problem was that often one appointment turned out to take longer than expected. While I would be waiting for my rider to finish, the other patient would be fuming at the delay. After that, I agreed to take just one per day, not two.That worked out much better. Later, if an appointment was expected take all day long, the office would use two drivers, one to take them in the morning, and one to go bring them home in late afternoon.
Quite often in the winter months the weather would be cold and stormy. Sometimes the patient would ask if I wanted to postpone the trip. I always assured them that I was used to driving in all kinds of weather and if they wanted to go, I was ready. I never had to postpone any trips for that reason. One lady, told me, and probably it was the same with others, that if I was to pick her up at 8 AM, she had to get up a 5AM, as it took her that long to get ready. I couldn't really understand why it took her so long, but now, at age 90, I understand perfectly!!
Sometimes my passengers wanted to leave me a “tip”. I explained to them I “wasn't allowed to take money from them”. They were encouraged to send money to the OFA office, based on a per mile cost chart. After a few years the office supplied me with self addressed envelopes which I gave to all the passengers. They did not HAVE to pay anything, if they could not afford it. But were asked to pay the suggested amount or what they could. Appropriately, I never knew if they paid anything or not. One woman, however, insisted on tipping me. After she arrived home and got out of the car, I always made a search and would find she had tucked away 5 or more dollars in the crack of the seat or some place where I would sooner or later be sure to find it. I turned that money in to the office as a donation in her name. OFA paid me a certain amount per mile for my trips. My time was contributed.
One time at Upstate I dropped off a lady for her appointment that would take most of the afternoon, probably to 4PM. I went downtown, walked around killing time until time to return. I told her I would come into the hospital waiting room and meet her at the place I had left her. When I returned, there were crowds of people out side waiting for their rides or for city buses. I went in sat down and waited and waited, but she didn't show. After an hour or so, I went to the information desk and asked them to find out if she had been admitted to the hospital or was otherwise detained. They checked and said she left the office over an hour ago. I went back outside, looked through the crowd and there she was sitting on a bench. I suppose she thought she would see me drive up, but after that I made sure all my passengers understood where we would meet.
I became quite a friend and confidant to “George” as we talked several times on the way to various doctor appointments.. He complained about feeling so weak all the time and none of his doctors could find anything wrong with him. I guess they had become sick of seeing him and considered him a hypochondriac. He was depressed and would say “Do YOU think I am crazy?” I tried to give him what support I could. Of course, I didn't know, but he didn't sound crazy to me. The next time I picked him up, he told me his last doctor had found that he had lymphoma, cancer of the blood, but didn't give him much encouragement about his future. At that time, I don't think they were as able to treat it, as effectively as now. Soon after that, I read in the paper that he had jumped off the roof of the 6 story building where he lived, and thus ended all his problems.
“Greta” lived in Germany until she and her husband had to flee from Nazi persecution. (Her husband had died some years ago, and she now lived in the senior citizen facility,Oneida Towers. We became good friends as we talked quite frequently on the way to Syracuse. She had kidney problems and had a personal a dialysis machine in her apartment. She still had to go to St. Joseph's Hospital in Syracuse occasionally for check ups. This personal type of machine took much longer in completing the process, than the ones hospitals used, about 6 hours everyday! Not very pleasant to look forward to every day! Oneida had no dialysis equipment as Oneida Health Care Center has now.(2011) “Greta” told me a lot about her life in Germany. I don't remember that they had a “farm” but they had a cow, chickens, and a large garden. We compared notes on our similar styles of living, the different garden vegetables we grew, and how we did it. I remember her telling me about her prize WHITE asparagus and her method of getting it white. At the time I had never heard of white asparagus. We compared notes on all kinds of farm and garden ideas. One trip to St. Jo's she was scheduled to stay in the hospital over night, so I left her there in the morning. Another driver would be scheduled to pick her up the next day. A few weeks later on another trip, she told of her troubling experience of that evening. Apparently, there was a mix-up, or maybe it was a different doctor than before. Anyway, she didn't find out that she wasn't staying overnight until early evening. Then how was she to get home??? It was office transportation policy that passengers were not to call drivers directly, but to go through the office coordinator. She probably didn't know any of the drivers' phone numbers, anyway. She decided to call a taxi. The hospital people helped her get in touch with taxi companies. All the taxi companies wanted cash in advance for such a long trip. She had about $35. in cash with her, but had plenty in her checking account. However, none would accept a check and the charge was $50. It was getting to be about midnight before she finally found a taxi driver who would take her $35,and collect the rest of the money when they arrived at her apartment in Oneida. I told her if such a thing happened again, to please call me any time of day or night, and I gave her my phone number. I wished I had given it to her before.
That is not the end of “Greta's”story. It was a long time since I had driven her, she probably having been assigned to other drivers, but this time she told me her story.---- She had had a routine mammogram. The doctor said she didn't need to call for results, and that he would notify her if they found anything of concern. Apparently she didn't hear anything from him and at her next visit, she mentioned it to him. He checked her records and found that he had failed to notify her of an advanced stage of breast cancer, and it had spread! He apologized over and over, but of course, that didn't help her situation. The cancer had spread beyond control. It was only a short time later, that I read in the paper of her death. I always wondered if she died of the cancer, or turned off her dialysis machine and ended it that way.
I was called one day to take a man to Syracuse. His wife came along with him. I knew the family, as at least one of their several kids had been in school with my kids. They were poor and lived in a “shack”. The one thing that stands out in my memory was the odor they brought with them. It was a combination of animal feces and human urine. So strong it was almost overwhelming!They, of course being used to it, probably never even thought of it. Without a doubt their clothes and everything in the house was saturated with the smell. Afterward, I sprayed the inside of the car with air freshener every day for a week before it was back to normal.
Several times I was asked to transport a certain lady, I think it was to a doctor in Verona. She was a pleasant woman and I had attended school with her late husband. He was a small, thin man. What I remember of the wife was her size. She was tall and really big! She wasn't fat, just BIG. She towered above me as we sat in the car, and her seat belt must have caused her a lot of discomfort. I had to get hold of it, and pull hard to squeeze it around her.
Sometimes, my passengers needed assistance in one way or another. Most needed just an arm to hang onto walking into an office. Sometimes I had to help them fill out the information on “first visit” forms. I remember one situation, where I helped a lady fill in the forms. The nurse called her in for the scheduled "complete physical" examination. The nurse said to me, “You can come in, too, if you like”. My passenger was quick to say “He is not my husband, he's my driver”. I had to “chuckle”.
Once in Syracuse on the way home I and my lady passenger were driving along on East Genesee St. toward DeWitt, and noticed a gang of 6 or 8 young boys on a side street corner. They seemed to be just hanging around, or maybe waiting for a bus. They were fooling and pushing each other out into the street, with one daring another to step out and hold up traffic or get run over. It happened that we had to stop on that corner for a stop light. I didn't know what they had in mind, but they moved in close around the car. I reached down and locked the doors.(In those days the cars didn't automatically lock the doors when starting up, as they now do). Well, the light changed to “go” and as I started up, one of them grabbed the car's radio antenna and snapped it back against the windshield. I made real loud snap noise, and cracked the glass as if a stone or BB had hit it. It was right in front of my passenger's face. The poor lady “almost jumped out of her skin”. Luckily, the glass didn't shatter, just cracked, and she was not hurt. I felt like jumping out and "kicking a few butts” or even calling the police, but that would have been foolishly useless. So we drove on.
I had a few passengers who were in the early or later stages of dementia. In those cases a spouse or other caregiver would ride along, too. In all cases I encouraged a spouse to come with any passenger. Then I could just act as “the driver”.
I never missed a scheduled drive except for one time. That time it was completely erased from my mind, leaving my supposed passenger to call the office to find out why I had not come to pick her up. I had taken my wife, Alberta, to an appointment with our family doctor two hours before my scheduled volunteer drive. The doctor had administered an EKG. After she read the results, she said that Alberta must go to the heart specialists at the hospital at once! I said "Okay, I will take her right up to Utica. “No”, said Doctor, “She has must go immediately by ambulance! Something could happen at any time”. I followed the ambulance to St. Elizabeths Hospital in Utica. Of course, I was shaken at the unexpected turn of events, and didn't think of my scheduled drive until I was waiting in the hospital for completion of the angioplasty. Then, I called the office and explained. I guess they rescheduled the lady's doctor appointment.
In spite of some of the sad or trying stories I have told above, most of my trips were pleasant and enjoyable. I'm glad I had the experience of meeting all those nice people.
I am so glad I decided to volunteer.!
C.E.P Oneida, January 2011
The "handyman" is not really a VOLUNTEER program, in that the "handymen" are allowed to charge a fee for their services.I have included it here because of its similar objective of helping seniors, even though there is a small fee attached. The OFA obtained its list of handymen from various sources, and compiled the listing to distribute as a service to seniors. The purpose of the Handyman program was to help Senior Citizens find someone to provide a little help around the house, and to do small maintenance jobs. Most couldn't afford to hire a plumber, electrician, or building contractor, and ”handymen” who would work more cheaply were hard to find.
The OFA gave out the “handyman lists” to Seniors who requested a copy, and the handyman would negotiate directly with the individual about the work, and payment. I didn't plan to make a lot of money, but just a little, while performing a needed service for old people.
Well, as it worked out, I had no trouble keeping busy, and had more calls for my services than I wanted. At first I fixed such things as leaky faucets, screen door latches, and ball valves in toilet tanks, cleaning out junk and trash, etc. After working on all kinds of such things for a year or so, I gradually began to specialize in lawn and garden types of jobs. On many of these outdoor jobs my wife, Alberta, worked along with me. We just charged for my time, and her help was “free”, a sort of “buy one get one free deal”. We used $5 per hour as a base to figure my charges, but usually we worked more hours than we charged for.
We met some interesting people!
In the Fall every year a very elderly lady on Seneca Street would call us to rake her back lawn. She always was quick to let us know she didn't want it done until the last leaf had fallen. Usually by that time the grass had grown to about six inches in height, making raking the leaves difficult. We solved that problem by using a lawn mower. We mowed and threw the leaves and clippings together in windrows (like I used to rake hay on the farm). With no long grass to hinder us, it made raking easy.
I remember spading up another lady's small flower bed. Just a short job but too much for her to do herself. I don't think we charged her anything.
One evening a man who owned a store in town, called and asked me to fix his mother's toilet which would not stop “running”. He said she had asked him to do it several times, but he just had had no time to get to it. I went to her trailer-home and installed a new ball and valve set. But, the reason I still remember it, was her trailer floor. She had insulated it by adding carpets. There were four or five layers of carpets on the floor. That must have made the floor warmer, and it was certainly soft to walk on. As you walked along you would sink in with each step, and sort of bounce up and down. It was like walking on a trampoline. It probably would feel nice if you were walking barefoot. She was a delightfully pleasant lady and spoke with an English accent.
A lady near Canastota wanted her over-grown bed of Iris “rejuvenated”. The roots had become so thick through the years, that the ground was a solid mass. I couldn't even stick a spading fork into it. The day we started work, I brought along the heavy old mattock, that my father had used in 1927 for planting tree seedlings at our Stockbridge Falls camp. It had been handed down to him from some ancestor. (I remember his swinging the heavy blade, digging into the hard soil on the hillside. I was about 6 years old. My job was to carry a pail with the tree seedlings and a little water in it, while my mother poked a seedling into each slit made by the mattock.)
(Back to the present)
As I chopped out all the Iris roots, Alberta sorted them, and picked out the best of the undamaged bulbs. As I finished chopping and working up the soil in one part of the bed, Alberta replanted them. That was not easy work, but it was satisfying. We knew how to do it as we had used the same method on our own Iris clumps that grew under our garden fence. We didn't charge the lady very much, and she wanted to pay us more. But we declined. It was enough to see her happy and feel her relief when the job was done. We both enjoyed doing such outdoor work.
One day a lady called requesting I go to her father's upstairs apartment to clean up the magazines on the floor. I couldn't imagine just what she meant, but when I got there I sure understood why she had called! It was a dangerous situation for him! His floor was covered with a thick layer of cast off magazines that he had finished reading and thrown on the floor. When she had come to visit him she saw that he was in danger of falling as he walked over them. Of course, they were shiny and very slippery. She wanted me to clean up the mess and carry the magazines down to the trash cans in the back yard. I used a bushel basket and carried down six or eight loads. I was called there after that, fairly often, before so much could accumulate. Various friends and relatives kept him supplied with reading material. He seemed unable to want to pile them up or, at least, throw them into one corner. His daughter paid whatever I asked. I didn't mind the job. The magazines were clean, but it was hard to understand why he would do that. (some sort of psychological problem-??)
A lady friend of Alberta's, wanted her screen door latch fixed. She had to tie it shut with string and untie it to get out. I toggled it up a little so she didn't need the string, but I could see there was no way to really fix the old latch. It needed a new handle and latch set. I scoured the local hardware stores and lumber yards, but none had one that would fit. Finally by phone I located a dealer in Rome who sold that brand of door. So I took a trip over there and picked up the new set. I didn't charge her for my time and travel, but only for the needed parts. If I had charged for my time, it might have cost as much as a whole new door.
I could understand why repair men, who made a living from such work, seemed to charge more than the home owner thought he should.
C.E.P. Oneida, January 2011
Copyright©2011 Charles E. Page
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