Friday, April 20, 2018

How I Finally Found the Right Volunteer Experience

Giving back isn’t always as simple as it sounds, but it's worth it

By Jill Smolowe for Next Avenue


Credit: Getty ImagesMan using computer keyboard, close up


In 2011, social entrepreneur Nancy Lublin had an aha moment: Millennials don’t dial into help lines when they’re in crisis because they hate speaking on the phone. Two years later, Lublin launched the Crisis Text Line, a 24/7 crisis-intervention hotline that enables people to reach out for free help via text messaging — a communication comfort zone for people in their teens and 20s. Plainly, it was an idea whose time had come: In just three years, the hotline’s crisis counselors have exchanged 28 million messages with texters nationwide.

When I first read about the Crisis Text Line, I was instantly interested. Its focus on helping young people in a moment of distress promised to make good use of skills I’d developed as a grief and divorce coach. Couple that with my ongoing search for a satisfying volunteer experience, and it seemed like a slam dunk…

…until I thought about the texting thing. That conjured visions of me tapping out typo after typo with my too-big thumbs on the too-small buttons on my cell phone (a device with which I hardly have a love relationship). I took a pass.


Try, Try Again

As I continued to look for a volunteer opportunity, I was surprised to discover that it’s not so easy to find an outlet that tidily matches the skills and passion you have to offer with the needs of an organization.

One friend told me that she knocked on non-profit doors for years trying to find an outlet for her environmental interests, only to come up empty-handed. Another friend who wanted to do advocacy work for homeless dogs found that the free offer of her time was not enough to get her phone calls returned.

Over the next eight weeks, trainers armed me with a canny array of skills for guiding people through a moment of crisis.

Some of my own efforts proved discouraging. A group that works with grieving children put me through a day-long training, only to notify me that my services wouldn’t be needed at an upcoming weekend-long event. A mentorship writing program that pairs high school girls with professional writers put me on a wait list. Given that I don’t have two heads, do have good manners, and offer a professional track record in both the writing and grief-work fields, I suspected that I was an older candidate than either organization was seeking.

Age proved a non-issue when I signed up for a tutoring program. My fourth-grader and I hit it off from the get-go. But he was a bright 10-year-old boy who didn’t actually need tutoring. Each Wednesday we’d tear through his (boring!) assignments, then play games. Mostly, he kicked my butt at chess. Often our time together felt more like babysitting than “giving back.” (And, ahem, my math skills were not always terribly useful to him.)



A New Approach

Around the time his school year was winding down, my daughter returned from college, absent her cell phone, which mistakenly had gone home with another student. Given my daughter’s 24/7 texting habits, I assumed that retrieving her phone would be a priority. To my surprise, she was actually enjoying the time untethered to a phone. To my greater surprise, that freedom hadn’t cut her off from exchanging texts with her friends.

“I do it on the computer,” she told me.

Subtext: Duh.

Valhalla! Texting via computer would mean a full-size keyboard, a big monitor and none of that annoying thumbs-only stuff that, for me, produces more typos than real words.

Quickly I found my way to
crisistextline.org and clicked the “Apply Now” button for volunteers. After clearing the assorted hurdles (including a criminal background check and references from two people) and making a yearlong commitment to handle calls four hours a week, I was assigned to an online training pod.


Becoming a Volunteer

Over the next eight weeks, trainers armed me with a canny array of skills for guiding people through a moment of crisis. The focus was on helping people shift from the heat of despair or upset to a place of cool and calm. The list of potential issues we could expect to encounter was formidable, among them suicide, self-harm, sexual abuse, LGBT bullying, eating disorders and homelessness.

No matter what the crisis, the Crisis Text Line approach was clear: you’re not here to solve people’s problems. Rather, you’re here to listen to them, to validate their pain, to remind them of their strengths, then to work with them collaboratively to identify a goal that will help them to keep moving in a positive direction when the texting conversation (convo, in crisis counseling lingo) ends.

In a nutshell, the text line was offering training for a skill that I hadn’t realized could be taught or enhanced: empathy. Armed with a particular style of questioning and response, it was possible to guide texters away from feelings of extreme distress. The hotline’s data backed that up: while some 70 percent of callers open conversations with dire statements (“I’ve lost the will to live,” “Suicidal feelings,” “I’m overwhelmed and want to die”), only 1 percent require intervention to halt a suicide attempt.

Six months later as I near the 100-convo mark, texters who write, “I’m trying not to cut myself,” no longer throw me. (Tip: Try drawing on your skin with a red marker, then tracing the lines with an ice cube. It “bleeds.”) I’ve yet to encounter any of the one-percenters (roughly 10 texters a day) at imminent risk of taking their lives. But I’ve shared the joy of other counselors who, in collaboration with a supervisor, have mounted successful rescues by tapping into local resources.


A Satisfying Experience

The Crisis Text Line platform is mindful of how intense these conversations can be for volunteers. Though everything is done online and I work from home, supervisors are always available to guide. And there is a chat room counselors can turn to for instant advice from other on-duty counselors while handling a difficult conversation.

In another chat room, counselors can take a breather. There, the messages are always supportive and lively. Given that 77 percent of the hotline’s 2,800 active counselors are between the ages of 18 and 35, favored discussion topics run toward cats, holiday plans and grad school applications.

For the 117 crisis counselors who are over age 55, such dialogue offers a delightful window on Millennial interests and preoccupations. The actual crisis conversations provide a sobering window on the stresses young people face today. “Volunteers over age 55 make exceptional crisis counselors,” Lublin said via email. “Through lived experience, they are (not surprisingly!) committed, highly empathetic and strong active listeners.”

As I pass the halfway mark of my first year as a volunteer (at year one, I get a text line sweatshirt. Woohoo!), I feel that it was well worth the hunt to find a volunteer experience that engages my heart, mind and skills. If you, too, are seeking a satisfying volunteer activity, please trust there are people and causes out there that need your time and experience. Just be forewarned: it may take some trial and error to find what you’re looking for.

 

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Parkinson’s Won’t Keep Kingsley Manor Stand-Up Comedian Down




“Did you hear the one about the man who robbed the bank in a wheel chair? He made an easy escape because the security guard jumped up to hold the door open for him.”

From anecdotes about bank robbers who slide past bank security in their wheelchairs to observations on by-stander’s reactions when one takes an unexpected fall, comedian and Kingsley Manor Retirement Community resident Mark Siegel has an unusual, and possibly unique, source for much of his stand-up routine: his Parkinson’s disease.

“I figured if I’m going to get on the stage people are going to wonder why I’m talking soft and slurring my words,” Mark said. “I decided I’d talk about the Parkinson’s at the beginning and see where it goes. I think I got a good response.” Siegel has been living with Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that often affects speech and movement, for the past 18 years. But Mark doesn’t let a disease get in the way of good “shtick.”

After a long career as a communication officer for a labor union, he decided to pursue his childhood dream: comedy. One night after watching a friend perform at an open mic, Mark had a revelation.

“It’s not that hard,” he said. “There’s little risk involved other than a little humiliation.” He signed up for a class and eventually testing out his material at open mic nights. So far he’s played to crowds at The Comedy Store, Flappers and, of course, Kingsley Manor. He has been performing for about a year and a half.

“He gets some pretty good laughs,” said Kingsley Manor’s Life Enrichment Director Viktoria Selmser. “He’s not afraid to put himself out there.”

He chose Kingsley partly for its great location. He loves having ready access to all that the city has to offer, including the local comedy clubs.

Mark appreciates the personalized and respectful care he receives for his Parkinson’s at Kingsley. “There’s a balance between privacy and having somebody there to help you. Kingsley gives me exactly what I need.”

But the thing that’s surprised him most are the relationships that he’s developed at Kingsley. “Of my closest friends, one’s a dancer, one is a poet and another is in publishing. They give me the extra push to do something positive and creative,” he explained.

Mark finds having friends and neighbors with common interests helps keep him engaged with his pursuits. “It gives you the extra push to do something,” he explained.

He encourages others with Parkinson’s to figure out a way to explore those things that interest them.

In addition to participating in regular dance and exercise classes offered at Kingsley, Mark runs a political discussion group and is very involved in the Parkinson’s Community LA, an organization which raises money for home care, exercise programs and transportation services for individuals living with Parkinson’s.

And just in case you were wondering … “After the robber escaped from the bank, a police helicopter spotted his wheelchair abandoned in an empty lot. He figured he could elude police by switching wheelchairs,” Mark quipped.



Thursday, April 5, 2018

One Surprising Way Older Adults Can Get Healthier

Credit: Adobe Stock 

You know about the obvious things. Now try this. 
By Dr. Ann Hwang for Next Avenue

Whether or not we actually do the right things to improve our health, many of us probably assume we know what they are. Walk more. Quit smoking. Eat healthier.

It’s a familiar list, and a good one. As a primary care doctor, I spend plenty of time counseling people to do exactly these things. But here’s another, less familiar thing I think you should consider: get engaged in your community. 


The Benefits of Connection 

Civic engagement may not be on the top of everyone’s to-do list, but it probably should be. There is intriguing evidence to suggest that people who are engaged in their communities — through activities like participating in local organizations or volunteering — could also have better health. 

For example, older adults who volunteer are less likely to have high blood pressure or cardiovascular disease; they face a lower risk of cognitive impairment and they might even delay death.

Additionally, forming social connections might be particularly helpful in combatting social isolation and loneliness, a growing problem especially among older adults. People who are socially isolated may have increased risk for premature death and some have estimated that the negative impact of social isolation and loneliness could be a greater public health threat than obesity.

Living alone’ having a mobility or sensory impairment; going through a major life transition (like losing a spouse) or being a caregiver for someone with a severe impairment are common scenarios facing older adults. They are also risk factors for isolation.

Yet despite the potential benefits, the average American is becoming less and less engaged. Participation in clubs and civic organizations has fallen by more than half over the last 25 years and polls suggest growing distrust and pessimism about our political system.
Stories of Hopeful Change

In our work at the Center for Consumer Engagement in Health Innovation, we’ve seen the possibility and promise of change. We support advocates and leaders — particularly people who have significant health care needs or come from low-income communities — who are actively engaged in working to make the health system more responsive and person-centered.

People like Lezrette Hutchinson, a working mother of three who experienced homelessness after a fire and had significant health challenges after a diagnosis of sarcoidosis, a serious inflammatory condition. Hutchinson got treatment, but she didn’t stop there. She formed a recreational support group for people 50+ and joined the patient advisory board of her health system, saying “we wanted doctors to listen to us.”

Now, despite her ongoing illness, she feels the power of having a larger purpose. Hutchinson says: “I became an activist so I could let new people know it was going to be OK.”

Or Kathy Paul, a 69-year-old woman who advocates for better health care policies for older adults with the Massachusetts Senior Action Council. When her husband died, it was a turning point in her life.

She explains, “With more time on your hands, what do you do? Just sit in the house, stare at the walls and complain, or get out and do something about it? What our group likes to say is, ‘We don’t just take it, we take charge!’” 


Everybody Wins 

As the National Academy of Medicine recently summarized, actively engaging consumers as partners in health care is a win-win proposition, for all of us and for the health system. Health care leaders and policymakers interested in improving health would do well to focus on building more opportunities for engagement for consumers and the communities they serve. 

So if you’d like to improve your health, consider looking for ways to become active in your community. Get involved with a local community organization, drive someone to the polls, join a committee at your place of worship. Find a way to get engaged. Help yourself and help others at the same time.

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