By RSVP, Red River Valley 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 critical role older adults play in fostering the connection and engagement that build strong, resilient communities.
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 society has faced the challenge of the pandemic, it has never been more evident older adults are a vital 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 more substantial 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. Also, 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, unable to put food on the table or 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. Programs such as Weekend Meals made sure homebound seniors continued to receive meals. Other programs, such as Co-Ministry, which operate entirely on the strength of volunteers, continued throughout the pandemic to meet fellow Lamar County residents’ urgent needs and help them get back on their feet again.
One of the most severe 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 a negative impact on older adults’ physical, mental, and emotional health 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 could not serve at their usual volunteer sites made the most of their time in isolation. They sewed face masks to give away and make 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 benefit 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.