116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
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Allison Andrews got her first taste of volunteering when she was a young girl growing up near Chicago.
Her father and several co-workers started helping at a local soup kitchen near where they worked in Waukegan. Occasionally, Andrews said, her dad would bring her along.
“Ever since then, I’ve had this desire to do good for others,” she said.
She did some more volunteer work while a student at the University of Iowa, eventually completing an internship at the Iowa City Senior Center for her aging studies degree.
Through the center, she learned about TRAIL of Johnson County, an organization dedicated to helping seniors live safely in their own homes. In 2018, she was encouraged to volunteer with the organization by the woman who oversaw her internship.
Now 24, Andrews is the volunteer coordinator and a member of the TRAIL board of directors.
TRAIL — Tools and Resources for Active Independent Living — was formed when two Iowa City-area groups of friends, all near retirement age, began discussing their common desire to “age in place” or stay in their own homes.
They developed a list of organizations and agencies that would serve as resources that could help older residents continue to live in their homes. They found professional service providers and volunteers to help older people with simple tasks, like transportation, home technology, light housework or handiwork. They created social events.
Today, TRAIL is part of a network of nearly 200 similar organizations around the country. TRAIL was the first of its kind in Iowa.
Grandpa was catalyst
Andrews saw the work TRAIL was doing and immediately thought of her grandfather, who she’s close to.
“I’d never heard of anything like this,” she said. “My grandpa is in his 90s, and he still lives in his own home by himself. When I first heard of TRAIL, I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, do they have one of these where he lives? This is perfect, it’s just what he needs.’
“So that’s what piqued my interest — my strong relationship with my grandpa and how much TRAIL would mean to him if it were available. It’s so important to him to maintain his level of independence in his own home for as long as he can,” she said.
Her relationship with her grandfather is also at the root of why she enjoys volunteering with and for seniors.
“For me, it’s the intergenerational relationships that I’ve formed,” she said. “A lot of people are shocked when I say I love working with older adults.
“But I just adore that population — you can learn so much from them, they have a lifelong wealth of knowledge. And again, it goes back to wishing there was something like this for my grandpa.”
Volunteering with TRAIL comes in many forms for Andrews, which is another reason she loves helping out.
One client recently got a new iPad and needed help setting it up — “All of my products are Apple products, so it was easy for me to help her” — while another, learning to live with declining vision, just wanted a nice meal as he relearns to cook without the benefit of sight.
She took him out to dinner, and he ordered a steak.
“His first bite, he just smiled and said, ‘Oh, that’s so good,’” she recalls. “He was tired of eating out of cans, so that was really important to him.”
Seniors give back
Other times, she said, it means filling a void left by friends who have passed. She accompanied one client to a UI basketball game — a tradition the woman and some of her friends had carried on for more than 30 years.
Volunteering with older people also has created an unintentional support system for Andrews, who graduated from the UI with a degree in aging studies and has recently been accepted into the university’s master’s degree program.
“Especially in this area, there are a lot of retired professors and retired doctors, and they get so excited about my career path and that I’m going back to school,” she says.
“Just seeing their excitement and them offering their words of wisdom and encouragement has been so helpful — a few offered to write letters of recommendation when I was applying, and that just meant a lot.”
Although TRAIL is dedicated to helping seniors live in their own homes, Andrews knows not every older person can continue living at home. That reality, she said, is difficult for the person and also difficult for the volunteers who’ve been helping them.
“The hardest part for me is when someone’s health is declining or their physical or cognitive abilities are beginning to slow, whatever it may be,” she said. “Seeing that decline, navigating those conversations, is really challenging, especially when it comes down to independence and whether staying in their home is the best thing for them. It’s really difficult.”
Still, she said, she hopes more young adults see the value in working and volunteering with seniors.
“There’s a lot of knowledge there, and the reciprocity of that relationship is incredible,” she said. “They’re going to learn from you, but you’re going to learn a lot from them, too. I feel like they are my biggest cheerleaders — I feel like I have a lot of grandparents in this area now.”
How TRAIL works
TRAIL of Johnson County offers monthly or yearly memberships to access a range of services and benefits.
Individual memberships are $50 per month or $600 a year. For households with two or more members, memberships are $65 per month or $780 per year.
Affiliate memberships with limited access to services are $130 per year for individuals and $195 per year for households of two or more individuals.
Available services include daily check-in, transportation, light handy-person assistance, home technology assistance, health care services navigation and advocacy, and house checks when members are away.
Prescreened professional service providers can meet additional service needs beyond the capacity of volunteers.
TRAIL of Johnson County also sponsors a variety of social events including book groups, card parties, coffees, educational programs and group outings.
TO VOLUNTEER OR LEARN MORE
Name: TRAIL of Johnson County, Tools and Resources for Active Independent Living
Address: 28 S. Linn St., Room 301, Iowa City
Phone: (319) 800-9003