For 25 years, Community Caregivers has marshaled volunteers to help people in need

GUILDERLAND — Joel Edwards will be 80 in March. He still volunteers for an organization he helped found a quarter-century ago — visiting elderly residents, talking to them, driving them to doctors’ appointments.

“I want to follow it as long as I’m able,” Edwards said this week. “We’re trying to allow people to live in their own homes as long as possible, to live independently with dignity.”

Some of the clients he helps are younger than he.

Edwards had worked as a veterinarian and is married to a nurse, Cindy Edwards. In 1994, his wife’s friend, Mary Therriault, who is also a nurse, and the late Victor Ross, a pharmacist at St. Peter’s Hospital, met at the Edwardses’ kitchen table to lay the foundation for what was then called Altamont Community Caregivers.

“Vic and Mary were looking at the Parish Nurse Program of the Catholic Church,” said Edwards. “I was thinking of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Interfaith Volunteer Caregivers. We decided we should collaborate …

“We met a few times and realized we needed a lot of help. We identified 10 people to form an organizing committee. All 10 said ‘yes.’”

In 1995, with the help of attorney Harry Dubrin and Judge Harold Hughes, the Altamont Community Caregivers was granted not-for-profit status. The group got a $25,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and grants from Altamont’s four churches — St. John’s Lutheran Church, St. Lucy’s Catholic Church, Altamont Reformed Church, and the since-closed Helderberg Bible Chapel on Gun Club Road — which supported its first year of services.

In 1996, nurse Martha Walrath was hired as the Caregivers’ first director, training 50 volunteers out of an office in the basement of St. John’s on Maple Avenue in Altamont.

As state grants were obtained, by 2000, coverage expanded into the Hilltowns and Guilderland and the group’s name was changed to Community Caregivers.

“We soon found out, after a few years of providing services in Altamont, that there were lots of needs elsewhere, so we expanded Community Caregivers,” Edwards recalled this week.

The group's headquarters were in three rent-free spaces — after St. John’s, the offices moved to the senior assisted-living facility at Mill Hill, then to the former Helderberg Bible Chapel, refurbished by developer Jeff Thomas — before moving to its current location at 2021 Western Ave. in Guilderland.

Victor Ross told The Enterprise in the early years of the Caregivers, “People are so busy. This is one way people can make a difference. It keeps people in their homes longer, instead of nursing homes. It combats loneliness and isolation. We’ve been successful, but the needs keep growing."

 

Leaders

The group has had a series of directors over the years, each with a unique view of the organization.

Marty Walrath wrote in The Enterprise that Altamont Community Caregivers’ first request for service “came from a long-time resident who needed companionship, light housekeeping, and assistance with shopping, following an accident.”

She also wrote about a variety of other services provided ranging from “shopping assistance for a young mother temporarily unable to buy food for her family because of illness” to a couple whose social life “was severely limited when an elderly mother came to live with them.” Walrath wrote, “They were able to spend an evening out because two enthusiastic and capable young people stayed with her.”

The volunteers, she said, ranged in age from 13 to 94. They helped people, she said, who might otherwise “fall through the cracks."

“Volunteering,” Walrath wrote, “is a cheerful offering of service, not a burdensome job. If you have a talent, an interest, a gift to offer, there is a neighbor who needs your unique contribution. 

“Volunteering gives you an excuse to do something you love. It’s an opportunity to do something different, to make new friends, to feel needed."

Judith McKinnon, who led the Caregivers in 2004 and 2005, said then that the group was heading into a new era where younger professionals were taking on leadership roles.

“We’re starting to be pretty intentional about bringing on board people that have professional connections to the community. It’s been a natural evolution,” she said.

Diane Cameron, who was hired as director in 2005, started new programs and support groups for those dealing with dementia. She also taught courses to help caregivers express themselves in writing, and she worked with county and state offices for the aging.

In 2008, Cameron commented on the office's move to Guilderland. “We’ve been growing a lot over the past 18 months,” she said. “We grew into Bethlehem about two years ago and began serving New Scotland. Now, our volunteers come from all over, so we wanted to be more centrally located.”

Additionally, Cameron said then, the need for caregivers was growing fast. “In the next five years, there’s going to be a quadrupling of the number of people over 60 in the area, and we think we’re going to need more services, more volunteers, and more trainers."

Thomas Tipple, who led the Caregivers for two-and-a-half years, after retiring from a 35-year career with the state, said, “The advantage that you have as the executive director is that, almost everywhere you go in the community, people think highly of the organization and respect the services we provide.”

Tipple had gone from managing $3.8 billion a year as deputy commissioner for the state’s Office of Children and Family Services, to managing $300,000 for the Community Caregivers. “This seems every bit as important, or more so,” he said when he took the job. “It’s about helping neighbors and making a difference you can see."

He was replaced in 2013 by Kathy Burbank, who had formerly directed the Guilderland Chamber of Commerce. “I am not saying ‘goodbye’ to all of my chamber contacts,” said Burbank at the time. “I am planning on carrying them along with me to benefit the Community Caregivers.”

Burbank wrote in a Caregivers’ column in 2013 on a report from the American Association of Retired Persons that said 7,000 New Yorkers were on waiting lists for transportation and other non-medical services, and that caregiving would be the number-one workplace issue as baby boomers age and the population of the elderly also increases due to people living longer.

“Caregivers providing non-medical services can often keep relatives out of nursing homes or other care facilities for years, just by helping with bills, shopping, errands, and transportation to appointments,” Burbank wrote.

 

Challenges ahead

At its 2019 gala, the Community Caregivers celebrated 25 years of service.

Edwards made a speech at the gala, highlighting some of the organization’s history, and praising the leadership of the board of directors and “the ongoing devotion of our office staff, program directors, and executive directors to our mission of caring for our neighbors.

“However,” he went on, “the single most important factor … is the core of dedicated volunteers who give of their time and talents in providing services, central office support, programming, fundraising activities, intake evaluations and countless other ways.”

But, Edwards said, the number of volunteers is declining. The Caregivers had 170 volunteers in 2010 who provided direct services. That number fell to 131 in 2016, and to 92 in 2019, he said — nearly a 50 percent decline in less than a decade.

Moreover, more than 40 percent of the current volunteers are 70 or older.  “If there is to be a 50-year anniversary celebration,” Edwards said, “we must solve this problem.”

At the same time volunteers are declining, the need for caregiving is increasing. With the restructuring of Medicaid, and the push to keep the elderly out of hospitals, more services like transportation and meals will be needed.

Linda Miller, as Outreach and Education coordinator for the Community Caregivers, wrote in a 2017 Enterprise column about the economic impact of unpaid help providing care, usually for family members,  as totaling nationwide about $470 billion, which is more than six times the amount that the Medicaid program spent on all home- and community-based services that year.

“There is a saying that caregiving is a marathon, not a sprint,” Miller wrote, noting the sort of back-up that Community Caregivers provides for family caregivers.

In 2016, Judy Rothstein, who with her husband, Arnie, has filled a wide variety of roles in supporting Community Caregivers over the years, wrote an Enterprise column about Joel Edwards putting his faith into action through his work for the Caregivers.

Rothstein related an experience Edwards had in 1994, when Caregivers was first organizing.

He was driving on the Taconic, “… feeling overwhelmed, mumbling away. Out of my radio came, ‘Go forth with boldness.’ I reached down to shut off the radio, and it was already off,” Edwards told Rothstein.

“Ever since,” Rothstein wrote, “Joel has done exactly that. He is no longer on the administrative end of Caregivers, but he is still on the service end. Joel says, ‘The aging population is increasing. There is a socio-economic stress of, often, both adults working. And our families aren’t near. We need volunteers. We always need more volunteers.’”

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