When It Comes To Aging In Kansas City, Seniors Help Each Other

Mar 19, 2015

When it comes to delivering meals to seniors, Don Davis is an old pro. 

“Every once in awhile they miss one, and it’s easier to count them ahead of time and not be short,” he says, sifting through two big cooler bags of food outside the Matt Ross Community Center in Overland Park.

Once he's sure the number of meals is right, he hoists them into the trunk and tells wife, Toni, it's time to hit the road. It’s about 10:30 a.m. when the couple begins their regular Friday route for Johnson County Meals on Wheels.

“I had retired, been retired for a couple years – Toni wasn’t retired yet – and I was looking for something that I could do,” says Davis. “I knew I could drive, and I knew I could find places.”

That was four years ago. Now Toni’s retired, too.

“So a lot of the delivering is in a neighborhood we’ve lived in ... for the last 50 years,” she says. “So it’s like doing it to our neighbors. In fact, we do deliver on one route to our neighbor right up the street.”

Drivers delivering meals to seniors are older, too

Homebound seniors 60 and older can get a hot lunch delivered five days a week from Johnson County Meals on Wheels. By Toni’s estimation, most of the people she and Don take meals to are older than that – at least 70.

Don asks if I've seen the February issue of “The Best Times, the monthly Johnson County magazine for seniors.

“There’s a story about the couple that’s been married 70 years. And he’s 89. I thought, ‘Boy, he looks healthier than I do,’” he says.

“He’s got more hair than you do,” Toni quips. 

Don chuckles. “That was a given.”

“That’s what makes him look younger,” says Toni.

But all joking aside, the Davises aren’t as young as they used to be. More than three-quarters of volunteers with Johnson County Meals on Wheels are old enough to retire.

Baby Boomers will change the way seniors volunteer

Seniors aren’t just giving their time to organizations that provide aging services. Emily Worm’s job with the United Way of Wyandotte County is to connect people 65 and older with volunteer opportunities.

“Right now we’re really pushing to get people into the schools and the afterschool programs – reading, mentoring, tutoring with kids,” Worm says. “We have a lot of volunteers working in food pantries. We also have a lot of volunteers that do things like knitting afghans.”

Worm says people are often surprised by how tech- and internet-savvy her senior volunteers are. They’re on Facebook and prefer she communicate with them via email. But they also have different skills than the next generation of seniors, the Baby Boomers.

Boomers, says Worm, are more interested in managing projects than sewing pillows for Cancer Action.

“A lot of those people are older. Their groups are kind of fading out. They’re aging out and can no longer do those things,” Worm says. “So that organization is worried. Where are we going to get all those pillows and things that people who are sick really love to get?”

Worm says it’s not that Boomers aren’t expected to start volunteering more when they turn 65. It's that they're retiring later and more likely to seek opportunities that mirror their professional experience when they do.

“So sometimes they don’t want something they have to commit to every week,” she says.

Concerns about aging keep seniors volunteering

Toni and Don Davis deliver a meal to Willard Beeker.
Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR

For their part, the Davises enjoy volunteering with Meals on Wheels so much they picked up a second route.

Sometimes Toni's health prevents her from getting out of the car with Don. She has asthma, and the winter's been hard on her. But when the pull up to Willard Beeker’s house, she gets out. He's one of their favorite clients. 

Beeker, a World War II veteran, pads to the door in plaid pajamas, his back stooped with age.

“I haven’t seen you in a couple of weeks!” Toni says. “But you’ve waved to me, and I’ve waved back.”

Beeker brightens when he sees her. The meal delivery is the highlight of his day.

“It gives me an opportunity to have some visitors,” he says, and he entertains Don and Toni with a story about his time in the service before they go.

Back in the car, I ask Don and Toni what they’ve learned delivering for Meals on Wheels.

There's a long pause, then they both start laughing.

“I try to walk well enough each day that I look younger than the people I’m delivering to because I’m 72,” Don says.

Toni laughs at her husband, but then she says, “We want to be healthy enough to stay on our own. I guess that’s why it’s kind of personal for us. If this helps these people stay in their home a little longer, that’s what we – that’s what we would want.”

Don’s quiet for a minute. Then he mentions something he noticed at their last stop.

“He's got that siding that needs to be power-washed. I see something like that, and I wish I were about 20 years younger so I could come over and power wash it for him,” Don says. “But I have enough trouble just getting the stuff done around our house.”

Pretty soon the Davises are back to return the now-empty cooler bags – all told, it took less than an hour. Don and Toni say they’ll be back again to deliver more meals, until they can’t anymore.

This story is part of KCUR's reporting project “Aging in Place,” an exploration of how the Kansas City region will meet the needs of an expanding population over the age of 65. Tell us how you're aging in place here.