Carlos Romo, a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Beaverton, retired after a career as a university professor of Spanish and Portuguese, assistant administrator of the Nevada Equal Rights Com-mission, and a community college director of equity and diversity. These days he focuses on family — noting that caregiving is part of the service that older adults give their communities — church and volunteering with AARP. (Kristen Hannum/Catholic Sentinel)
Carlos Romo, a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Beaverton, retired after a career as a university professor of Spanish and Portuguese, assistant administrator of the Nevada Equal Rights Com-mission, and a community college director of equity and diversity. These days he focuses on family — noting that caregiving is part of the service that older adults give their communities — church and volunteering with AARP. (Kristen Hannum/Catholic Sentinel)
Carlos Romo grew up volunteering. He remembers cleaning the Sisters of Charity’s Chapel in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as a Catholic high school student. He climbed a ladder so he could dust the crucifix, the Stations of the Cross, banisters, stained-glass windows and moldings.

It took him a good part of a day, and he still remembers Sister Sarita rewarding him with a slice of apple pie afterward.

“I was grateful for having the opportunity to volunteer and help the nuns,” he said.

Romo understood early on that it does a person good to help others.

That’s not just hypothetical. Studies from Johns Hopkins University and other reputable research universities have shown that helping others is good for you, in part because when you volunteer your brain releases dopamine, giving you the same satisfied feeling that comes after a strenuous workout.

Pope Francis has noted that volunteering is a good cure for loneliness.

Romo, a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Beaverton, no longer teeters on ladders to clean chap-els.

Now retired a career as as a university professor of Spanish and Portuguese, assistant administrator of the Nevada Equal Rights Commission and a community college director of equity and di-versity, his service these days is, together with this wife, Nancy, as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion at Holy Trinity, as a volunteer for AARP, and as a grandfather, available to puppy sit or pick up the grandkids from school.

Through AARP he gives presentations on fraud prevention, caregiving, financial security and diversity — fitting that volunteering time around faith, family and travel. Beyond helping others, Romo said service has given him a chance to know people and know Oregon.

He referred to AARP’s motto, “To serve, not to be served,” saying that it’s always important to give back. “I want to remain active — before my life ends, whether that’s tomorrow or years from now.”

Pope Francis has made the gifts of older adults a theme of his papacy.

Earlier this month the pope told older adults that our world, short on hope and faith, needs elders’ prayers, wisdom and other gifts. He urged older adults, who have more free time than they did earlier in their lives, to be generous with it.

The pope also pressed older adults to be bold in finding their new purpose, making it up as they go “because our societies are not ready, spiritually and morally, to give this period of life its full worth.”

And the contrary? “How awful the cynicism of an older person is, he who has lost the meaning of his witness, scorns the young and does not communicate knowledge about life,” said the pope.

Hope through faith

Benedictine Sister Dorothy Jean Beyer, former prioress of Queen of Angels Monastery and a minister to the sick at St. Mary Parish in Mount Angel, offers faith instead of cynicism. “We have to believe that every action we do in love and social justice makes a difference because we believe in God’s grace,” she said. “Christ’s Resurrection triumphed over death.”

Sister Dorothy professed her first vows in 1963. The Benedictine women have served the community, especially through social justice. “It’s been part of my life as a Benedictine sister to be interested in systemic change,” she said. “Not only helping someone now with food and shelter but working toward changing the system.”

Sister Dorothy said systemic change begins with the sisters’ main mission: prayer. It can be heard in the Liturgy of the Hours and as sisters in their 80s and 90s pray for meaningful change through the Masses’ intercessory prayers.

“I feel compelled to write to senators and representatives and the president, asking for change for the common good,” said Sister Dorothy. “Love makes the difference. We can stop the systemic problems of poverty, racism and greed. We have to heal the earth, to leave the planet healthy for our children.”

She is heartened by the goodness of people in Mount Angel, especially in the parish’s gifts to St. Joseph Shelter and Mission Benedict and the prayer shawl ministry, in which shawls and knitted hats alike are created with prayers for the recipients.

“I know from being on the shelter’s board that people are very generous,” Sister Dorothy said.

Better than TV

At age 94, Leroy Patton, a former member of St. Andrew Parish in Northeast Portland, volunteers with more than a dozen groups, from the Governor’s Commission on Senior Services to the Interfaith Alliance for Poverty. He serves on several boards, including that of the Fair Housing Council of Oregon, which he cofounded. Unsurprisingly Patton, who also sings in the choir of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church and a community choir that sings at nursing homes, is quick to say he can’t take on any more volunteer work.

He’s full up. “I hardly have a moment in any day,” he admitted.

Patton left the Catholic Church decades ago when he divorced, having been told he would no longer be able to receive Communion. (That was not true. A divorced man or woman can receive Communion unless he or she remarries without an annulment.)

Catholic or not, Patton has a sensibility and drive to help others. “There’s no satisfaction from sit-ting and reading or watching TV,” he explained. “The more you relate and help and work with others, the more empathy and internal satisfaction you get.”

Seniors in poverty

Patton has a keen sympathy for the many older adults who live in or near poverty and much of his work is focused on helping retired people.

“Most seniors cannot afford to do anything once they’re seniors,” he said. “And you don’t have the means to take care of yourself because the pharmaceuticals are priced so high.”

Romo too is concerned about older adults these days, and the cost of pharmaceuticals.

AARP has reported that 46% of elderly unmarried women rely on Social Security for 90% or more of their income. The average benefit for a retired woman is about $1,125 a month according to the Social Security Administration. And the Retirement Management Journal found that the average annual health care costs for older adults, excluding long-term costs, are about $4,500 monthly.

Obviously those numbers don’t offer security.

Romo would like to see Medicare be allowed to negotiate drug prices — as do other countries and other health insurance providers.

“Recently, I personally paid $352 out of pocket, after insurance, for a medication whose actual cost was $1,500,” he said. “Most older adults cannot afford these costs. We should be paying less.”

Through his volunteering, Romo said he is satisfied that his voice is heard — helping people and preserving Medicare and Social Security.

He does have a caveat about volunteering. “Family is first,” he said.