Volunteer forges ageless friendships

13-year-old Kalyn Thrift wins statewide award for work at Copper Ridge

September 25, 2002|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

As she walks briskly through the halls at an assisted-living community in Sykesville, Kalyn Thrift, 13, greets each person by name.

The 126 residents of Copper Ridge are coping with varying degrees of dementia and memory impairment and they don't always remember the name of this petite, sandy-haired teen-ager. She graciously reintroduces herself and asks, "How are you?"

Kalyn, a Century High cheerleader, spends hours each week with the residents - more than 200 hours in all since she began volunteering 20 months ago. Her dedication has not gone unnoticed. She won a statewide award last week when the Maryland Activity Coordinators Society Inc., a 25-year-old organization with about 165 members who work with the elderly, recognized Kalyn as its volunteer of the year.

At Copper Ridge, Kalyn delivers mail to residents, visits with them, plays their favorite games and sings along to tunes familiar to them and foreign to her.

"I don't always know the song, but I like to sing with them," she said. "I like working with the residents and seeing them smile. Sometimes, all I do is say `Hi' and I have them smiling."

Patricia J. Outland, Copper Ridge's assistant director of activities, nominated Kalyn for the statewide honor.

"Our population is very difficult to work with, particularly for someone her age," Outland wrote. "Many of our residents have behavioral issues and delusions that would frighten adults, but she has learned to manage this appropriately."

Copper Ridge, an affiliate of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, identifies memory-impairment behavior and provides care while researching improvements in dementia treatment. Daily activities play a prominent role in that care. Residents are encouraged to play miniature golf, plant an herb garden, bake cookies or paint a picture. The staff keeps a closet full of toys, hand tools and sports equipment, hand exercisers and tossing games, designed to stimulate the senses and memories.

Kalyn initially volunteered to fulfil her student service requirement of 75 hours. She is well past the requirement and continues to donate her time.

"She did the orientation, started working and didn't stop," said Kalyn's mother, Cricket Frederick. "I think this helps prepare kids for life. They really see the whole life span."

Kalyn typically volunteers two afternoons a week, but she will stay later if she thinks a resident needs her. If she has a day off from school, she will take an eight-hour shift. She engages the residents in activities that range from lively balloon ball games to quiet walks in the garden. The residents have taught her to play rummy so well that she is a match for the best of them.

"Kids of any age are special here," said Nancy B. Lerner, director of nursing. "They make our residents smile and they occupy their days. Kalyn can relate to our patients, especially the ones with disabilities."

Jenna Gallup, who chaired MACS' nominating committee, said, "What struck us was her youth and that she went on with this activity. At 13, there are a lot of other things kids want to do besides hang out at a nursing home."

The award frequently has been given to an elderly volunteer. Kalyn, a freshman at Century High who lives in Sykesville, is the youngest recipient that Gallup can recall.

"Choosing a young person reinforces the idea that kids out there should take an interest in other generations," Gallup said. "I think this is a real sign of hope for the future."

Connecting the generations has become a national trend among homes for the elderly, said Deborah Cloud, vice president of communications for the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging, an advocate for the elderly. Initially, so much old age and frailty in one place might intimidate teens, but those who persevere find the time rewarding, she said.

"Teen-agers and the elderly have a common enemy - the generation in between," Cloud said. "Neither group is judgmental, and this is good for both generations. It takes young people out of everyday situations with family and school, and the older people see someone other than old folks. The kids find they have great listeners."

Stephen Vozzella, Copper Ridge's director of activities and volunteer services, said Kalyn can often coax residents into an activity.

"The residents sometimes respond better to her than to the staff," Vozzella said.

One sunny afternoon last week, Kalyn read the newspaper to Dottie Bossert, 86. The two were quickly engaged in a lively conversation on the latest topics.

"She is a nice gal, and we have a good time together," Bossert said.

Kalyn said she prefers one-on-one visits, and she has great conversation starters.

"I ask them about the past or how their kids or grandkids are doing," she said. "We go through their photo albums together. If they get upset because they can't remember, I will ask different questions."

Estelle Sanzenbacher, Carroll County's coordinator of student service, said 200 hours would not be that unusual for a high school senior, but for a freshman it is "way over and above."

Volunteers are vital to the assisted-living facility's effort and 80 percent of the volunteers are middle- and high-school students, Vozzella said. He trains them in what to expect from dementia patients and how to respond to them.

"Most likely they will not remember your name the next time you come or what you did together before," he said. "If you don't have patience, you will learn it here. Kalyn stars in patience."

Kalyn shrugs off the praise.

"These are all people that I know and can talk to," she said. "They like to hold my hand."

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