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May is Older Americans Month, by Kelly Hamill

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By RSVP Coordinator Kelly Hamill

For almost 60 years, our nation has recognized the invaluable contribution senior adults make to the health of our communities by celebrating Older Americans Month in May. It began in 1963 as Senior Citizens Month, when President John F. Kennedy designated May as a time to celebrate the vitality and aspirations of older adults, and it officially became Older Americans Month in 1980.

This year’s theme is Communities of Strength, recognizing the important role older adults play in fostering the connection and engagement that build strong, resilient communities.

It is said that in tough times, communities find strength in people—and people find strength in their communities. When I reflect on the past year and how our community has faced the challenge of the pandemic, it has never been more evident that older adults are a key source of our community’s strength.

With a lifetime of experiences, successes, failures, joys, and difficulties, they bring resilience and strength to every new challenge, even one as big as a pandemic. When communities tap into this, they become stronger too.

As Coordinator of the Red River Valley RSVP, Retired & Senior Volunteer Program, I have had the privilege of seeing firsthand how our older citizens have stepped up to the challenge of the pandemic and how they continue to work to overcome some of its most devastating effects. As the pandemic wreaked havoc on working families, many found themselves in situations they had never faced before, being unable to put food on the table or being unable to pay rent or utilities.

Senior adult volunteers at the Downtown Food Pantry, and many other food pantries in Lamar County, kept the food distribution service in operation to meet the increased need for food assistance, and programs such as Weekend Meals made sure homebound seniors continued to receive meals. Other programs such as Co-Ministry, that operate completely on the strength of volunteers, continued throughout the pandemic to meet urgent needs of fellow Lamar County residents and to help them get back on their feet again.

One of the most heartbreaking effects of the pandemic has been the social isolation and loneliness among our elderly who had to forego many of their public activities to reduce the risk of getting COVID-19. Research shows that the physical, mental, and emotional health of older adults is negatively impacted when they lose a sense of belonging and social connection.

However, many of our RSVP volunteers who were “sidelined” during the worst months of the pandemic and were not able to serve at their usual volunteer sites made the most of their time in isolation by sewing face masks to give away, and by making frequent wellness calls to other homebound elderly neighbors and friends. By continuing to serve others in this way, both the volunteers and those they reached out to benefitted from the connection they made. 

Many RSVP volunteers also assisted with the Paris-Lamar County Health District’s COVID-19 vaccine call center, helping individuals get on the waiting list for the vaccine and calling thousands of others to schedule their appointments. Several retired volunteers with medical backgrounds helped administer vaccines, and many more helped the clinic coordinators to provide a well-organized experience at the weekly clinic.

Senior adults in Lamar County are some of the most productive, active, and influential people you will ever know. Their response to the pandemic has been humbling and inspiring to me. For that reason, Older Americans Month is the perfect time to celebrate these individuals and the amazing ability they have to leverage their wisdom, lifetime of skills, and experience to keep Lamar County a “Community of Strength.” 

If you are over the age of 55 and interested in learning more about the many opportunities available as an RSVP volunteer, please call 903-782-0441. 

RSVP is sponsored by Paris Junior College and locally funded by Lamar County United Way.

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Author: Ross LaBenske

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