May 30, 2016

12 Year Old Brightens Seniors’ Day

There is over 60 years age difference between them and yet they all agree that they have more in common than they would have thought.

Richard Thouren and Richard Hale have more than their first name in common. For the past six months these two older adults have been sharing their time with a friendly visitor through the West Elgin Community Health Centre volunteer program.

What makes this story unique is that their friendly visitor is only 12 years old.

In October 2015 Ethan Slaats was looking for something to pass the time while waiting at an appointment in the same building shared by Heritage Homes Retirement residences. He asked if he could visit with the seniors. It was his mother Melissa Slaats who suggested they speak with volunteer coordinator Shelly Vergeer at the West Elgin Community Health Centre to register as a volunteer.

“We had an appointment and we were wondering what to do. I asked Shelly about visiting. Ethan took interest in it and really, what was the harm in him visiting and offering his time?” Melissa said.

Now every Wednesday evening Thouren, Hale and Ethan get together for a visit. There is over 60 years age difference between them and yet they all agree that they have more in common than they would have thought.

“A lot of things he does I did as a kid: hockey. It brings back memories,” said Hale.

Ethan prepares for his visits and lights up when he talks about the ideas that come from searching around his house. He packs away his activities in a bag that he brings with him to his visits.

“Usually I go on an adventure in my house and I move through the house and see what they might like,” said Ethan. Sometimes it is a game or toy that might interest them.

“Since he started, he’s always come well prepared. Wednesday night is like another Christmas. We open the package and don’t know what will come out. One time it was paper airplanes. Richard and I were having a contest. We were trying to land on the table and some of the neighbors came and tried it out,” said Thouren, explaining how their visits have begun to draw interest from other residents in the building as well.

“Some of the other seniors know when Ethan is around and come visit. He brings us stuff we haven’t ever seen before. He brought down bey blades” said Thouren.

Although it isn’t common for 12 year olds to be volunteering with the friendly visiting program, it is something that is having a positive impact on everyone involved.

“I came here (West Lorne) knowing no one. I’m 83 years old. This is the best thing. I’m sitting here 10 minutes to 4 o’clock in case Ethan is here early. He is a good kid. “ said Thouren.

Ethan’s mom has noticed a difference in Ethan as well.

“It is nice to see volunteering has given Ethan something else to take interest in. He is turning into a young man, and it’s helping him as he matures; it is giving him a better understanding of what really matters. I hope the things we are instilling in him will shape him. These were two strangers and now they are friends. I hope when he’s my age he can say remember when I visited the Richard’s, remember how important that was?” she said.

“These were two strangers and now they are friends.”

Ethan appears to already understand the positive impact he is having through visiting.

“When I went to see my Oma I noticed how lonely and sad the seniors were. They were happy to see us. There are not a lot of visitors. I have learned more about seniors and they have learned a bit about me.  Every Tuesday I think about what I’m going to do the next day I volunteer,” he said.

Ethan’s visits are having a deeper impact as well, beyond a good visit. His visits are helping combat loneliness, which is something Hale is thankful for.

“I feel happier. I didn’t have much time to play for the last few years. It makes me feel better. When you get isolated and sick you think about yourself a lot. I get away from that (during our visits). It makes a difference because I feel better. He teaches me. This way there is someone I can talk with. It’s kind of lonely when a lot of your friends are gone and I look forward to my visits,” said Hale

This isn’t something Ethan wants to keep to himself though and he is open about the benefits when talking with his classmates and friends.

“I say to them that this is a fun experience and maybe they can try it or can come with me and try it out and volunteer with other people. I like volunteering. I think my friends would too.”

The West Elgin Community Health Centre Volunteer Coordinator couldn’t be happier. “The volunteer program doesn’t cost the volunteer or those they are visiting and yet the return is immeasurable. “The Friendly Visiting Program helps improve the quality of well-being and independence for seniors and adults with disabilities”.    “I would encourage others to look into this program either as a volunteer or a client,”  said Vergeer.  For more information please call Shelly at 519-768-1715 Ext. 2210 or email: svergeer@wechc.on.ca