The best way to find yourself, is to lose yourself in the service of others.

— Mahatma Gandhi

It’s a refreshing bright spot in an oftentimes-bleak news landscape to learn about the ways that people are making a positive difference in the world around them. A story caught my eye this week about a group of seniors who found an innovative way to use their time and talents to help the less fortunate.

Residents at The Village at Orchard Ridge, a continuing care retirement community (CCRC or life plan community) in Winchester, Virginia, devised a way to turn plastic grocery bags into waterproof mats that can be used by the local homeless shelter.

The group of Orchard Ridge residents, who refer to themselves as the Plarners (combining “plastic” and “yarn”) collected 31,500 plastic bags. Over the course of several months, the Plarners sorted, folded, cut, and looped the plastic bags into balls of plastic yarn. Then, using large crochet hooks, they crocheted 35 mats out of their unique yarn.

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Neighbors helping neighbors

As the story notes, many of the Orchard Ridge residents did not know each other prior to starting this massive undertaking, but many new friendships were formed. The 3-by-6-foot mats are made of around 900 bags each, and each of the 35 mats required around 25 to 30 hours from start to finish to sort, cut, loop the plastic yarn, and crochet. That gave the Plarners a lot of quality time to get to know one another and bond in a meaningful way. These types of interpersonal connections are one of the many advantages of living in a CCRC.

It’s also noteworthy that this project was entirely resident-led. Residents identified the need for the mats at the shelter, they found an innovative way to address the need, and they organized and divvied up tasks to bring the project to fruition. In my experience, the most successful CCRC groups and activities are those that are spearheaded by the residents themselves.

The waterproof mats project also highlights how older adults in CCRCs and other retirement communities continue to innovate. Combining their creative talent for crocheting with a state-of-the-art way to give all of those plastic grocery bags a new life, the Plarners found a unique solution to a real-world issue faced by the less fortunate. Innovative service projects like this one certainly address the growing concern about maintaining purpose in older adulthood.

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Making good use of time and talent

There are many “feel good” elements to the Plarners’ mat project, but the statement within this story that most stood out to me was this: “…the Village at Orchard Ridge has plenty of resources and people to help others.” The recognition that CCRCs like Orchard Ridge have the resources—in both time and talent—to help others is a big deal.

You may recall a blog I wrote last year about Aldersgate, a CCRC just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. Aldersgate partnered with a local not-for-profit to establish a 6.7-acre working farm on their campus, which serves as a source for fresh, affordably priced produce, like cucumbers, kale, spinach, and tomatoes, for nearby communities.

Aldersgate residents volunteer at the farm in a variety of capacities. The farm hosts monthly farm-to-table dinners, which are open to the surrounding community, and their mobile kitchen provides cooking demonstrations. Additionally, the facility operates as a hands-on learning lab for local schools, giving area children a chance to see how a farm operates and grows their food.

Projects like these show that the residents of both the Village at Orchard Ridge and Aldersgate are using their time and talents to make a truly meaningful impact on their communities, helping those who are less fortunate.

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Reaping the rewards

There is an all-too-common misconception that once people retire and perhaps begin to experience some age-related health issues, they lose their value to society, or worse, become a burden. And unfortunately, this is often a self-fulfilling prophesy, for example, as seniors lose the ability to drive and they become increasingly isolated in their home.

But the reality is that the skills, knowledge, and benevolence of older people doesn’t disappear when they retire. There are countless ways that older people can continue to give of themselves if society simply helps facilitate their contributions.

The residents of CCRCs are proof-positive of this fact. They are living active, vibrant lives and are contributing in important ways to the world around them. Whether it is crocheting mats for the homeless, growing produce for their community, or any number of other volunteer opportunities, these seniors are making a tangible, positive impact on the world around them, and their CCRC family of friends and administration helps facilitate such activities.

Service projects like these serve numerous purposes. Aside from the obvious good they do for those in need, they also benefit the CCRC residents who participate—forming new friendships, remaining physically and mentally active, and finding a crucial sense of purpose in life. The rewards reaped by senior volunteers can truly be life-affirming and life-changing.

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