August 23, 2022
by Lin Sue Cooney
As his memory fades, veteran finds joy in bonding with volunteer
Bright and early, every weekday morning before she heads to work, Meredith Bartlett shows up at her friend Larry Lambert's house. The Navy veteran is always waiting with a smile and a hug. Together, they take his dog for a walk around his Phoenix neighborhood.
That little stroll is just a slice of Meredith's day, but it's everything to Larry. After a serious fall a few months ago and increasing memory decline, the 75-year-old didn't feel safe venturing out alone anymore. Meredith helps him stay active and his wife Connie knows he's safe.
And it's all thanks to Legacy Corps, an AmeriCorps program. Through a partnership with Arizona State University and Hospice of the Valley, volunteers like Meredith are trained to support military veterans living with dementia.
"It's the most rewarding thing I've ever done," Meredith says with absolute sincerity, "helping someone who appreciates it so much. I look forward to seeing him every day. I'm his friend, but he's my friend too."
She takes Larry to doctor's appointments, the grocery store, post office or bank. The two often plan "adventures" to places like the Heard Museum, Desert Botanical Garden and the Penske Racing Museum. A few times they've made pasta, rolling the dough, pressing and cutting the noodles. The goal is to enjoy the day, whether it's a good or a difficult one.
"I don't know what I'd do without her," Larry confesses. "She's my guardian, she holds my hand. She puts up with an old guy who can't always think of the right words." A tear slips from his eyes as he continues. "It's magnificent and beautiful and very emotional for me. If she can't come, I really feel a day of loss."
Meredith's background is in speech pathology, "so I love the challenge of helping someone who may have difficulty communicating, as dementia patients often do," she says. "Larry is interesting and funny and entertaining. I wasn't expecting to be so full of joy doing this, but it's really wonderful."
Without these outings, Larry is pretty sure he'd be sitting in front of the television all day watching reruns.
"I look forward to the doorbell ringing and her coming in the door," he says. "She's a very positive person. Life is sad sometimes, but learning how to laugh at it makes the sadness disappear. She understands me and it just makes my day."
These visits also improve quality of life for Connie, who is exhausted working two jobs and being Larry's caregiver. "Knowing he's happy and going places to have fun alleviates a lot of guilt and stress," she reflects. "It's such a godsend. Dementia is a family disease. Even though Larry's kids help us too, they work and have families of their own, so it takes a village. Meredith is part of our village."
As a single mom who works full time, Meredith admits it's not easy finding time to volunteer. "But it's so worth it," she says. "When you realize how much your visits mean to someone who depends on you, and is so grateful for your time, it will change what you think is important and what you should make time for."
Hospice of the Valley is looking for more Legacy Corps volunteers to visit dementia patients in need of compassionate support. This program provides the volunteer with a monthly allowance and a college tuition award after a year of service, which may be passed on to a child or grandchild.