Win and Elaine Dermody are among older adults who volunteer their time in the backcountry educating users about wilderness rules and safety through the Friends of Wilderness organization.

Suzanne Munn/Courtesy

Win and Elaine Dermody are among older adults who volunteer their time in the backcountry educating users about wilderness rules and safety through the Friends of Wilderness organization.

Aging Well: More older adults stepping up, giving back

— Every Wednesday, Virginia Elliott dons a pink button-down jacket and heads to The Memorial Hospital in Craig, where she takes flowers to patients, answers visitors’ questions and fills in where help is needed.

Elliot has volunteered as a “pink lady,” or member of The Memorial Hospital Auxiliary, for nearly eight years. Some members have offered helping hands and smiles at the hospital for three decades.

Volunteer center

The Yampa Valley Volunteer Coordination Center matches volunteers of all ages and groups with opportunities in Routt and Moffat counties. Nonprofit organizations and volunteers interested in learning more about the service can call 970-879-5605. Volunteer applications and a list of current opportunities are at www.unitedwayroutt.com.

It addition to assisting hospital staff, auxiliary members hold fundraisers to buy needed hospital items, such as a jaundice meter for newborns and televisions for the day surgery waiting area.

“It’s wonderful,” Elliott said. “I do it because I like to see people and help when I’m needed.”

Elliott is among a growing troop of older adults volunteering their energy to better their communities.

The number of volunteers age 65 and older increased 18 percent between 2002 and 2009, according to a report by The Corporation for National & Community Service.

Although this increase can be attributed, in part, to the growing older adult population, improved education and income likely are providing them more time and skills to dedicate to areas of need.

The connection between volunteering and better health is another big motivator.

Older volunteers have lower rates of depression and better functioning and tend to live longer than those who don’t volunteer, notes another report by the corporation.

“It puts you in touch with the public, and you are not so isolated,” Elliott explained. “You can make new friends … and you are doing something with your life that is helpful to people.

“It makes you feel good inside.”

There is no shortage of opportunities for older volunteers to apply their knowledge, skills and enthusiasm. Their life and work experience can be incredibly valuable to organizations juggling many tasks with limited resources.

The Yampa Valley Volunteer Coordination Center, a service of the Routt County United Way, is a convenient clearinghouse for nonprofit groups and volunteers looking to fill a need in Routt and Moffat counties.

More than 40 nonprofit organizations are registered with the center, with needs ranging from Spanish translation and office assistance to parade marshaling and trail work.

“We are really hoping retired people that might have time on their hands or expertise to share will connect with us so we can help them find the volunteer opportunity they might be looking for,” said Patti Bollenbacher, program assistant at the Routt County United Way.

Often, volunteers follow their interests and then see where their skills or experience can be helpful.

A love for wild places inspired Elaine Dermody, a retired gerontologist living in Steamboat Springs, to help monitor wilderness areas as a volunteer Forest Service ranger 17 years ago.

Dermody saw a need for more volunteers to educate increasing numbers of backcountry users about wilderness safety and rules — a daunting demand for government staff facing tight budgets.

So Dermody and other like-minded volunteers formed Friends of Wilderness, a volunteer group dedicated to helping protect nearby Flat Tops, Sarvis Creek and Mount Zirkel wilderness areas.

In its 11th season, the group partners with the Forest Service to train volunteers to maintain trails, rehabilitate campsites, and effectively approach and educate backcountry visitors about illegal or unsafe behaviors. Volunteers wear Forest Service uniforms but do not write tickets or provide enforcement.

The organization has about 25 core members who return to the backcountry every season. Most are retired people who share Dermody’s passion for keeping wilderness healthy for their grandchildren and more generations to come.

“There are so many very important things that need doing, and older people have so much to share,” she said. “Particularly when you retire, that means you were successful, and those skills now can be used for good causes.”

Dermody has taken her goals further, helping start the National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance, a network of wilderness volunteer groups across the U.S.

The many, many hours she has dedicated toward wilderness-centered volunteer projects likely seem small compared with what she has received in return.

“You’ve just got to keep involved,” Dermody emphasized. “The aging process is challenging … so to focus on something other than yourself is going to give you a better quality of life.”

For more information about Friends of Wilderness, visit www.friendsofwilderness.com.

Tamera Manzanares writes for the Aging Well program and can be reached at tmanzanares@nwcovna.org.

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