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Volunteers at Longview senior living facilities keep residents active, engaged

By Jo Lee Ferguson
Nov. 4, 2017 at 10:30 p.m.

K'Lee Skidmore, center, helps Buckner Westminster residents with a craft project Oct 27.

On a Friday in October, like he does on so many other days, Gid Terry sat down with about a dozen other residents of Buckner Westminster Place in Longview for craft time. That day's task was to make a scarecrow out of clay pots.

The craft had been selected in recognition of Halloween in a cooperative effort between K'Lee Skidmore, an accounting student at Kilgore College, and Buckner's life enrichment coordinator, Brandi Edwards.

Skidmore started volunteering at Buckner when she was a student at East Texas Charter School, and she has continued helping with a craft at the senior living facility once a month since then.

For Terry, it doesn't really matter what the craft is. He'll be there. Terry had lived in Marshall after he retired as a colonel from the Air Force 30 years ago. A few years after he retired, his wife, Ann, now deceased, started attending craft shows throughout the South as a vendor. He would cut items out of wood, and she would paint them.

That's why craft time is special to him.

"It brought me back home," Terry said. "It doesn't matter (what the craft is), I'll do any of them."

Buckner Westminster Place offers a full scope of senior living options, including independent living, memory care, skilled nursing and assisted living, where Terry lives.

Volunteers are important in many ways at the facility, Terry said. Field trips to the yogurt shop and other places, for instance, require the assistance of volunteers who help residents in wheelchairs and in motorized chairs.

"Without them, we wouldn't be going," Terry said.

Edwards said Buckner's assisted living side takes several trips a month, with about a third of the residents going each time. Volunteers are trained to use the bus lift and help residents.

"I couldn't do it without them," she said, adding that she sometimes has a one-to-one ratio of family members and volunteers to residents. "They're a lot of help."

In a senior living environment, volunteers aren't just about activities and field trips. Buckner's executive director, Wes Wells, said the number of volunteers helping at Buckner is good, but there's room for more there and at other facilities.

"It's about building those relationships," he said of volunteers and residents.

"There's so many hours in a day," Wells said, and "a lot of between times." Volunteers don't just help with activities. Sometimes they might sit and provide companionship to people whose personalities mean they don't enjoy larger social settings. Volunteers learn residents' birthdays, bring them their favorite food or learn residents' interests. Volunteers also offer a listening ear to residents who might worry about burdening family by talking to them about their worries.

Edwards said Buckner has a lot of residents' family members who are involved at the facility. Residents aren't just dropped off and neglected, but volunteers help make them feel loved.

"It's just that extra attention and love," she said.

That extra attention and love are special to Frances Fuller, who has lived in assisted living at Buckner for about three years. She served in the Navy during World War II as a secretary and went on to retire from what was then known as Texas Eastman. Her son lives about an hour away, she said, so the activities and companionship offered by volunteers help "fill the time."

"It's for me, not for them. I'm not helping them as much as they're helping by giving me something to do," Fuller said.

Volunteers bring value, she said, and help residents fill their time "with something besides just ourselves."

The key with volunteers, Wells said, is matching their interests and talents to a volunteer activity. Skidmore, for instance, was able to use her talents in arts and crafts.

"I love working with older people," Skidmore said. Turnout on her craft days has grown from about three or four people to about 15, and she said she loves interacting with residents and learning from them.

Her great-grandmother lives in a nursing home almost two hours away, and Skidmore said she often talks about how she wishes more people would volunteer where she lives. Many people probably assume senior facilities have plenty of staff members to provide activities, Skidmore said.

"They're limited," in what staff can do while caring for the residents, Skidmore said.

Another volunteer at Buckner, Dee Shappell, regularly visits Buckner along with area hospitals and physical therapy centers with his dog, Beau, a mixed-breed dog who is half Australian shepherd.

Shappell, who is retired from BorgWarner, where he worked in engineering management, previously had yellow Labrador retrievers who were his hunting companions.

Beau is about 3 years old, but he was 8 or 9 months old when Shappell and his wife, Patty, adopted him from the animal shelter. Shappell quickly realized that his new companion had never been in a car, never walked on a leash and hadn't been in a house. He's now a comfortable house dog.

Beau also turned out to be the easiest to train of all the dogs that Shappell's had — and he had a sweet and loving disposition.

"I noticed that he was loving and loved to visit with people. He was never aggressive toward kids or adults or anything," Shappell said. He had heard before of a therapy dog program, and he started down the extensive training path that ultimately led to Beau becoming a certified therapy dog.

While Beau helps with physical therapy at other facilities, at Buckner his job is social visits. Sometimes, residents will throw a ball for him to retrieve.

"He's a therapy dog working with other people, but he's my therapy too," Shappell said. "I enjoy working with him and training him. I can tell you all sorts of stories about the smiles that get generated when he comes around. It's rewarding to see someone who's down in the dumps and you spend 10 minutes with them, and when you leave, they're all smiling and waving and saying bye to Beau."

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