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the joy of volunteering

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One of my volunteer jobs takes me to a 54-bed psychogeriatric* care facility. By the time I arrive, a handful of residents is already seated in big armchairs. A sign on the door asks for “Quiet Please: Meditation,” although it makes little difference to the comings and goings at the nursing station across the hall. A staff member checks with the regulars to see if they’d like to join. Ours is an all-female group: one or two men have joined in the past but never returned.

We sit for half an hour. I begin by asking participants to feel the chair back and arm rest that hold them, to notice where their feet touch the floor “without looking down.” I join them in slowly breathing in and breathing out by exaggerating my own. I suggest they place a hand near their heart or belly and feel the expansion and contraction. Some do, some don’t.

Since all of them are on various meds for anxiety and depression, my aim is to help them (re-)connect with their body. Some participate, others nod off and snore. Too much silence, I’ve found, and someone will get fidgety or get up and leave. So I offer a structure with words, bringing attention to breath, hands, and feet. When the time’s up, I strike the bell. We put our palms together and bow to each other. Everybody seems to like that part, even those who were asleep a moment earlier.

These weekly interludes fill my heart. Maybe it’s because I’ve been of service at a very basic level, maybe because I’ve connected with people who spend much of their life in a fog. As I press the code pad to let myself out of the secure building, I inhale the fresh air and count my blessings.

*Psychogeriatrics deals with the study, prevention, and treatment of mental disorders in humans of old age.


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