A retiree enjoys volunteering at the hospital

Driving patients to and from their cars leads to laughter and learning about ‘bonus days’

By George Valadie

It’s becoming one of the most enjoyable days of my week: Tuesdays—the day I volunteer at the hospital.

Long before I’d ever officially announced my leaving, I knew I had no intention of retiring only to sit around waiting for the end.

Though I won’t lie, a little bit of my “sitting around” has proven to be remarkably relaxing in these first few months since I stepped away from the school where I’d been principal.

They’re still battling COVID. I am not.

While some retirees plan to travel or start a new business or learn to cook and paint and play the piano, I left the day-to-day work world with no plans at all and could only tell my wife, “We’ll figure it out.”

When my mom retired at 80, I worried that she wouldn’t figure it out, that she wouldn’t know what to do with herself. I’ve never been so wrong.

She threw herself into volunteering because she said her job had always prevented her from helping out with all our school events, trips, games, etc., when we were young. She believed this newfound opportunity to give of herself was her way of paying back for the many moms and dads who had stepped in to help her kids when she could not.

Even at 80—especially at 80—the woman was a lot to live up to.

And though Nancy and I are yet to have totally figured out all aspects of this retirement thing, I’ve always known I wanted to volunteer somewhere. I told the coordinator to put me where you need me. You know me; you know what you need; just let me know.

As a result, I wear an identification badge with directions on the back detailing emergency codes and procedures. But let me be clear from the outset: I am not saving lives. They didn’t ask me to do that. They prefer that I don’t actually. “Call somebody!!” were their exact words.

I’m not counseling the forlorn. I’m not taking temperatures, nor am I providing masks or directions. I’m not in the cafeteria or the gift shop.

All would have been fine with me. I even volunteered to mop floors.

As it turns out, I don’t think I’m doing anything they can’t actually live without. But Tuesdays are a good day.

I passed the background check and presented my vaccination cards, which I expected would be required. But then I also had to pass the eye test. That seemed like a lot.

Turns out my vision is important since I am driving a used Toyota, and they are liable. It’s a hospital-leased courtesy car, and my assignment is to cruise the parking lots, with a stated mission of shuttling patients and visitors to and from their cars.

I’ve got a map for when they are lost and a radio for when I am.

It’s a darn big place with lots of entrances, parking lots, and employees. Not to mention sick people—no shortage of those for sure.

So where you want to park and where you actually park aren’t always the same. Thus, in the dead of winter, or on a rainy day, it’s been especially nice to be able to lend a hand.

The hospital utilizes golf-cart shuttles, too, and this is a lot like that—only better.

As you would imagine, I try to keep the conversations casual and upbeat. You never know why folks are here. Sometimes it’s to celebrate the good news of good health; but sometimes not.

In this setting I’ve already found it to be a risky question, but most often I ask, “How are you today?” I try to be cheery, even if the weather is not.

It was just my first day when a rider lamented, “I’m here to get my pacemaker checked. They say I’ve only got two months left.”

“Oh, dear,” I offered, “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Oh, I don’t mean me. I mean my pacemaker. I think I’m gonna have to get a new one in two months.”

He laughed. I laughed. Both our days were better.

Another passenger asked if I was a volunteer.

“Yes, ma’am, I am. I’m trying to get to heaven,” was my reply.

Folks are grateful for the lift and seem to like that I’m trying.

The Pew Research Center estimates that approximately 10,000 Baby Boomers have turned 65 every single day since 2011 and will continue to do so until 2030. With about 70-plus million Americans born into that generation, it’s apparent that more and more of us will be available to help out.

But I also recently read, “The boomers’ interest in volunteerism will depend on whether the (nonprofits) can offer roles that match their interests, values, and preferences.”

Shame on us. While some of that is true, I suppose, I don’t know that it’s the duty of the nonprofit sector to cater to me. We (all 70 million) have enjoyed the lives and years that have come from living in a time and in a country where those before us made our days better.

My mom was no saint, but I do think she had it “figured out.” We should pay back when and where we can. I’m of the opinion that nonprofits have enough to do without trying to match my “interests, values, and preferences.”

You certainly don’t have to be retired to be grateful—or volunteer—but I’ll admit, you have more time to.

“How’s your day been going?” an elderly gentleman asked as he piled into the car.

“Well, I’m in this car with a heater, so I’d have to say pretty good so far. How about you?” I replied.

“Well, it’s a bonus day for me. So all is good.”

“A bonus day?” I asked.

“Yep, my brother used to say that every day you wake up is a bonus day, so we should enjoy it and do something good with it. It’s how I try to look at it anyway.”

I gave him a ride. He gave me more.

Dear God—You said, “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and drive out demons.” We’re hoping pitching in at the food bank counts, too. Amen.


George Valadie resides in Chattanooga and is a parishioner at St. Stephen Church.

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