At left: Virginia Rutgers of Plainwell gets a ride home from volunteer driver Dan Kelsey after dialysis at Fresenius Medical Care.

Volunteers needed to help seniors and veterans stay independent in Allegan County

By: 
Virginia Ransbottom, Staff Writer

Volunteer drivers are needed for Allegan County Senior and Veteran Services and its service providers.

“ACRDC (Allegan County Resource Develop­ment Com­mit­t­ee Inc.) used to have 17 drivers and now they’re down to 11,” said senior services director Sherry Owens.
 
“It’s typical to ebb and flow, but right now we’re definitely ebbing.”
 
Owens said the drivers needed are personal drivers who use their own vehicle to pick up seniors or veterans who might need to get to medical and legal appointments, meal sites, shopping or other errands.
 
“While we have ACT (Allegan County Transport­ation public transit), those drivers are not able to get off the bus to shovel clients’ entrances, carry a grocery bag or knock on the door if clients are running late,” Owens said. “It’s a more personalized service that helps seniors stay independent or gives families some respite.”
 
Owens herself may transport up to three dialysis patients in one trip and also consolidates the ride to make sure clients have groceries and medications.
 
Volunteer driver Dan Kelsey, of Martin, said it has its rewards.
 
“I haven’t been working and this makes me feel useful by giving back,” he said. “It keeps me engaged and active while helping people.”
 
Kelsey had given up his job to stay by his mother’s side while she battled Alzheim­er’s. 
 
“One thing leads to another and I became familiar with the need for respite for family members,” he said. “Often, clients of programs are living in the home of a family member.”
 
One of Kelsey’s clients, Virginia Rutgers of Plainwell said without the personal drivers she would not be here today.
 
“Once you start dialysis you can’t stop or you could be dead within a few weeks,” she said. “I have a prosthetic leg so I don’t drive and I can’t afford other transportation.” 
 
Rutgers has been going to dialysis for two years from Plainwell to Allegan three times a week for more than fours hours a day—which would be too much to expect from family or friends, she said. 
 
“Besides, Dan and I like to talk about the Detroit Tigers.”
 
Rutgers is one of Kelsey’s more talkative clients. 
 
“Most of my clients aren’t as outspoken as Miss Daisy (from the movie ‘Driving Miss Daisy’),” Kelsey said. “In fact, some of them don’t talk at all.”
 
While clients’ personalities may vary, so do shifts for driving. For instance, Owens may pick up Rutgers to take her to her appointment and Kelsey may pick her up after the appointment.
 
Kelsey chooses to drive about 250 miles a week and is paid 50.5 cents per mile. The Commission on Aging board is currently considering raising that to 56 cents per mile for drivers.
 
“I set a limit on how much I’m willing to drive because my car won’t last forever,” Kelsey said. “I drive clients to doctors or dialysis appointments, Christian Neighbors and to the Generations day care.”
 
Allegan County Medical Care Community’s Generations Adult Day Care offers social, recreational and medical support to Allegan County seniors and respite for caregivers. Participants can attend for a few hours or for full days. 
 
Sally Starks is a volunteer driver with ACRDC and drives 1,500 to 1,800 miles every two weeks.
 
“The farthest I’ve gone is taking veterans to Ann Arbor,” Starks said. “I have no children, so seniors are like my children. They’re a part of my family and I like being around them.”
 
Starks formerly was a driver transporting motor homes until the bottom fell out of the market in 2007. She’s been driving senior citizens around since. 
 
“I’d recommend it to someone who has some extra time because it’s like a part-time job,” she said. “Sometimes it can get real slow, but last year and this year have been really busy with more people needing assistance.”
 
Starks also recommends a driver who has patience.
 
“Some are hurting and real sick or may have dementia.”  
 
Many of Starks’ clients live alone and her service helps to keep their independence.
 
“They have to be able to get in the car on their own—whether using a walker or a wheelchair to get there,” she said. “Where you are taking them will have a wheelchair to pick them up; while I help, I don’t lift them or a wheelchair.”
 
For clients with more severe disabilities, the ACT bus has a chairlift.
 
Drivers also must be reliable. 
 
“If you need the day off, you have to make arrangements in advance for an alternative driver because these people’s lives are on the line,” Starks said.
 
It’s dialysis patients Starks likes best because the ongoing schedule allows them to get to know each other.
 
“The dedication of our volunteers is unreal,” said Janet VanDyke, director of ACRDCs Older American program. “We had a couple drivers who drove every day this winter. They can get really attached to our seniors.”
 
However, VanDyke said the driving service never had a waiting list until recently.
 
“There’s definitely more demand for rides than drivers,” she said. “We’re averaging about 15 to 20 calls a week we cannot do, so we take them according to a hierarchy of needs with medical appointments coming first.”
 
VanDyke attributes the increased need for services to the baby boomer generation now coming through the system as senior citizens.
 
“We’re seeing so many more individuals in this age group needing dialysis, cancer treatment, assisted living, nursing, home meal delivery—all of it,” she said. “With a personalized driver, we can keep them living independently in their home for as long as possible, which is very important.”
 
Drivers must pass criminal and driving record background checks. The driver’s vehicle must also pass inspection.
 
Owens said in August a volunteer appreciation day is held with refresher training on safe driving, a free vehicle inspection and car wash, door prizes and other fun stuff.
 
To fill out a volunteer application, call senior services specialist Tammy Chapin at (269) 673-3333 or toll-free at 1-877-673-5333. An application is also available at www.allegancountycoa.org/volunteer.htm.
 

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