How Volunteers Are Helping Seniors Keep Their Independence

How many retired guys does it take to hang a picture? About four, according to Dennis Beezley of Glen Rock, who volunteers with the Chore Service of Bergen County.

Chore, an outreach program operated by the Bergen Volunteer Center, provides minor home repair services to our area’s senior and disabled residents.

Dennis began with Chore in 2009 when he was seeking volunteer opportunities after retiring from his career as a bond trader.

“I did a lot in my own home but also had a lot to learn,” he says. “The people who run Chore assess your strengths and match you up with others who complement your skills and knowledge. They emphasize safety while developing our knowledge and experience in home repairs like plumbing, electrical and carpentry.”

Dennis’ team consists of three other retired volunteers whose careers ranged from anatomy professor to property manager to facilities engineer. It’s an eclectic group that has hung their share of pictures and changed a lot of lightbulbs over the years.

By performing simple repairs and installing safety grab bars, railings and additional lighting, they ensure that seniors and disabled Bergen residents can remain independent while avoiding injury from falls. The work is important because the costs of home repair can be prohibitive to those on a fixed income; the average client saves more than $500 by using Chore. And while nursing home stays can run up to $100,000 per year, studies have shown that home repairs help an elderly person remain in their home for 13 months longer than expected. When considering these kinds of numbers, the investment of Chore volunteers is incalculable to the families of seniors living at home.

The true beauty of the program is that most of the volunteers are seniors themselves—and they enjoy their experience every bit as much as the residents who benefit from their know-how.

“The program is really great for everyone involved,” says Jessica Leibe, program assistant for Successful Aging at the Bergen Volunteer Center. “Friendship and camaraderie are highlights for our volunteers, and I enjoy seeing them come every week having a great time. When they return at the end of the day and report how they overcame a challenging project, you can feel their sense of accomplishment,” she says.

“I grew up in the Ozarks where we rode in trucks and cracked jokes, and that’s what I do on Fridays with the guys from Chore,” Dennis says.

Dennis recalls a client who was rehabilitating from a fall and could not step into her tub to bathe. By figuring out her dominant side and how she would access the tub, the team was able to install a grab bar, attach a shower hose and assemble a shower chair for her.

“You really feel that you are helping people,” he says.

Chore currently has 52 active volunteers and serves more than 1,500 clients a year in 70 municipalities of Bergen County. Because the program operates on weekdays, most of the volunteers tend to be retirees, but that’s not a requirement, Jessica says. Chore can be a valuable experience for college students who have some free time, especially those who are physical or occupational therapy majors.

More than 1,600 grab bars were installed for Bergen residents in 2017. The challenge has been that Chore is gaining popularity and has a growing waitlist with clients scheduled more than six weeks out. The program receives numerous referrals from physical therapists, social workers, friends and relatives of those in need, so they are continually seeking new volunteers, donations of supplies, tools and financial support.

“The thank-you notes we receive from clients would melt your heart,” Jessica says. 

Appreciative homeowners note the courtesy and professionalism of the volunteers as well as the fact that they trust them and feel safe with the team in their homes.

“Some of the guys even get specially requested by clients,” she adds.

All Chore service labor is performed for free by volunteers, and clients only cover the cost of materials. Chore is funded by the Division of Senior Services of Bergen County and by individual donors. For more information, visit BergenVolunteers.org.