Henry Duncan

Celebrating 20 Years of Volunteerism in 2020: Henry Duncan

Celebrating 20 Years in 2020 

By: Henry Duncan

I decided I should do something constructive after I retired and what could be more constructive than volunteer work? As my mother had Alzheimer’s disease (AD) I thought it would be a good idea to volunteer for the local Alzheimer Society.

At one of our companion meetings, the coordinator posed a question to the attendees: “Have you ever felt that you have received as much or more benefit from the experience as your match?” Upon reflection of my volunteer experiences, I believe I can say yes to that question. 

O. was my first match.  He had grown up on a farm and saw active service in World War II as an ammunition truck driver. His wife would tell me about his wartime experiences and about his life growing up on a farm.  Often, she would pause and ask for verification from O. and always O. would say, “Yup, that’s the way she goes”.  That seemed to be all O. could say, but you could get an idea of what O. meant by the way he said it and from his facial expression. His wife began to refer to me as a “friend” and we spent many visits traveling and dining. O’s wife passed away and he followed a few weeks later. Occasionally I drive to a nearby town, visit their grave site and just sit for a while thinking about the friendship and the good times we had. I am always fascinated to meet and hear the stories of war veterans and feel honoured to be in their company, imagining the horrors they went through so we can live the good lives we do. 

P. was my second match.  He had been a member of the Dutch resistance during the war and had emigrated from Holland to Canada shortly after. My visits were more conventional as I would sit with him in the apartment while his wife went out to do errands or just have some time to herself.  At first, my visits mainly consisted of reading a newspaper to him.  He was well educated and very knowledgeable – we had some very lively discussions about various newsworthy topics. After a few sessions, he let me in on a secret - during the war he had kept a diary of his experiences as a resistance fighter. After coming to Canada, he had it translated into English. I was asked if I would read portions of the diary to him as he was not able to read it himself. What an interesting experience that was, especially for a war history buff like me!

B. was a retired school janitor.  He said he liked to entertain people by playing his harmonica and performing a sort of stand-up comedy act. He told me that he would like to visit a retirement home and entertain the residents there, so that’s what we did.  It turned out that he did have a very funny act; he could do various funny voices and play wonky characters in a “Red Skelton” kind of fashion. He was an excellent harmonica player and could play just about any song requested. Eventually, we met up with a 92-year-old man who played the guitar and had been the lead musician in a band going way back to the 1930s. Our visits mostly involved the two musicians giving a concert for the other retirement home residents. Due to his age and arthritis-related lack of finger dexterity, the guitar player could only play in certain keys and getting B. to play a harmonica that matched one of those keys was always a problem. Sometimes I would bring my bagpipe practice chanter (bagpipes with no bag or drones) and I would join in if B. could be persuaded to play in the right key and I knew the song. We would make our rounds so B. could do his act and then the concert would commence, and a good time was had by all.  

I have described just some of my volunteering experiences which I hope have illustrated why I feel that many of the people I have met through volunteering have meant so much to me, and why I feel that I also benefited greatly from the experience of volunteering. It can be emotionally draining, and I am sure not suitable for everyone. People you become attached to slowly, or in some cases quickly, deteriorate. Still, I have had the opportunity to meet many wonderful people, both people with Alzheimer’s disease and their caregivers and I have had many positive and rewarding experiences. It’s a nice feeling to be trusted and appreciated – perhaps the main reason why volunteers get as much or more out of volunteering as the people they volunteer for. I would not trade those experiences and memories for anything.   

In addition to being a Volunteer Companion of 20 years, Henry is the President of the Board of Directors for the Alzheimer Society of Oxford, the Chairperson of the Woodstock Walk for Alzheimer’s Silent Auction Committee and still finds time to volunteer for the Society in many different ways.

If you are interested in becoming a volunteer companion like Henry, learning more about the program, or any other volunteer roles, please contact the Alzheimer Society of Oxford at 519-421-2466 or email [email protected].

Last Updated: 01/08/2020