Raina Schoen Thomas ’20 builds connections and friendships by volunteering in a respite program for senior citizens and caregivers.

By Kris Dreessen

If it’s a Tuesday or Thursday, Terry Price ’58 is probably on the Geneseo campus, spending several hours with student volunteers visiting, taste testing cooking projects, creating art and enjoying their company.

Price and his wife, Dianne Price ’60, are part of the Home Away from Home Respite Center, a program for community seniors run through the county service organization Livingston CARES. The program trains student volunteers to provide a welcoming space for senior citizens with memory-related illnesses — and provide some necessary free time for their caregivers.

That rare freedom inspired the program, says Sharon Leary, program coordinator and the College’s student employment service coordinator and community outreach assistant.

“There’s not a week that goes by in which families don’t say, ‘I don’t know what I’d do without the program,’” she says.

Home Away from Home was created in 2016 by alumni Jessie Gyr ’16 and Alyssa Penn ’15, through AmeriCorps Vista. Each student volunteer completes training on memory-related diseases, communication techniques and tools for managing challenging situations. They plan daily activities rooted in beneficial routines for people with memory-related diseases, with enough variety to keep it fun.

“They are such caring and loving people. It’s been wonderful for me,” says Price, who  believes the program has improved his memory and who has grown close to Raina Schoen Thomas ’20. “I told her she is very special to me. I feel like I’m her adopted grandpa.”

Q: Why did you choose to volunteer for the caregiver program?

A: Home Away from Home matches what I want to do on this planet — to build bonds with other people and understand them. It’s a time I look forward to.

Q: How do you manage sensitive discussions or emotions brought on by chronic challenges of memory-related diseases?

A: Every day is different. We have great conversations. Sometimes there’s a lot of laughing. Other times it’s a bit more emotional, talking about day-to-day struggles. We let the seniors initiate tough conversations, but then we often talk freely, sharing our own experiences and challenges. I’ve always found it important to be optimistic but not to sugarcoat reality. It can be difficult and emotional but because we have that, it is beautiful in a way.

Q: Has your time spent with the seniors fostered friendships?

A: We are from totally different eras, but we are able to learn from each other and connect with each other. The caregiving and memory-related illnesses are on the side. We have become friends. Terry Price and I have gotten really close. We’ve had deep conversations about life, religion and death and what we mean to each other as people.

Q: Has this experience transformed you?

A: I have a good amount of social anxiety. This program has really helped because everyone approaches each other with honest sincerity and kindness. I feel comfortable being myself. I can be goofy or energetic and I don’t try to hide that. Other days I’ll feel exhausted and stressed and people can sense that and will check in to make sure I’m okay. I feel grounded and self-assured and as a result I’ve been able to explore a side of me that’s more of a leader. This program now serves as a reminder that I do have the capacity to be more outgoing and take more initiative. I can think about it whenever I’m starting to doubt myself and it prompts me to re-evaluate my insecurities.

Q: These seniors were your age more than 50 years ago. Do you discuss what life was like then?

A: We start our day talking about whatever comes up. It could be as simple as the weather, but it often evolves into something else. They have so much knowledge and personal experience that may be somewhat obscure to the general history we learn in classes. Our understanding of the past only skims the surface of what real life was like. When two generations meet and connect, a door is opened and we are able to see a world that was mostly unknown to us. Someone may bring in a family photo or an old book or share a talent. One of the seniors, for example, makes incredibly intricate wooden bowls out of tiny pieces of wood. He’s amazing at it and has brought several finished pieces in to show everyone.

Q: How has your experience in Home Away from Home influenced your future plans?

A: I am a biology major and thinking of pursuing a career in physical therapy with senior citizens. I really like working one-on-one with people and being given the chance to develop a stronger rapport with them. This respite program has made that desire more of a living reality and has given me valuable experience.