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New London volunteer makes service life's work

By Judy Benson
The Day Of New London / January 1, 2012
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NEW LONDON, Conn.—Dave Thormahlen drove his beige Elantra to the curb at the entrance to the Lawrence & Memorial Hospital outpatient rehabilitation center in Waterford, parked and hopped out to lend his passenger, 85-year-old Ethel Perl, his arm and his companionship.

Thormahlen, a fit, energetic 82-year-old with a full mane of white hair and easygoing disposition, lifted Perl's wheeled walker from the back seat and positioned it at the open passenger door.

"Up on the right, down on the left," said Perl, who is legally blind, as she grabbed the handles of the walker and moved toward the clinic door.

"You got it," said Thormahlen.

Inside, he helped her out of her jacket and hung it on the rack as she checked in.

"He's a gentleman, and they don't make too many of them these days," said Perl, who had started out with Thormahlen from her New London apartment, he providing the assistance she needed to finish getting ready.

"I usually make my appointments around when he's free, and we both get appointment cards so we don't make mistakes. I'd marry him if he'd marry me, but he's married to someone else."

For the past five years, Thormahlen, of New London, has been her volunteer driver, giving Perl rides to twice-weekly medical appointments, the bank and sometimes the supermarket, providing a vital service that enables her to live as independently as possible.

While they waited for her to be called for her appointment, the two chatted about her 92-year-old brother. On his lap Thormahlen held the Tom Clancy novel he would open once her appointment began. After the therapy session, he would take her to a second medical visit, this one with a New London dermatologist.

"He gets a lot of joy out of it," said Thormahlen's wife, Angela, of his volunteering. The two met about five years ago when both were helping at a local nursing home, and got married three months ago. "I never met anyone who was so caring."

Thormahlen, who worked as a chemical technician at Electric Boat for 40 years, became a volunteer driver about 15 years ago through what was then called the Retired Senior Volunteers Program. With his five children busy with their own families, Thormahlen had been a Literacy volunteer for the first few years after retirement, and was looking for a new way to make productive use of his time when he heard about the program.

He was drawn to RSVP by its premise of senior citizens helping fellow seniors. Now called Volunteers from the Heart, Seniors Helping Other Seniors, the program is based at United Community and Family Services in Norwich.

"It's the best job I've ever had," he said. "People need help going to the doctor or grocery shopping, and it would be very expensive if they had to take cabs. They're living on fixed incomes and they just haven't got the money to pay for that."

When Dave Thormahlen was growing up in New London, his father, a Lutheran minister, inculcated in his family the habit of service to their church and to others. The church he now attends, Groton Bible Chapel, carries on that message.

"If I was in this situation, I'd want someone to help me, too," he said. "I believe I've been blessed because I've got Social Security and a pension from EB, so I'm not wealthy, but I don't have to work."

Too many older people, he believes, become bored and disengaged in life after retirement.

"They sit in front of the TV all day long and they shrivel up and don't do anything," he said. Whenever he gets a chance, he encourages others to try volunteering, telling them, "Everybody's got a little bit of time."

Thormahlen is one of 28 senior citizens volunteering in the program directed by Lori Rygielski at UCFS. She wishes there were more. Together, she said, the 28 help about 240 other seniors by giving rides to medical appointments, visiting to play checkers, reading mail or just socializing, making daily check-in calls or staying with an Alzheimer's patient to give family caregivers a respite. Most of the seniors who receive help couldn't afford to pay for these services, and don't meet the conditions to qualify for Medicare assistance that would pay for them.

Thormahlen, she said, "does it all." He's sat with people on their death beds, after getting to know them during years of driving them to chemotherapy or dialysis appointments. He's fixed one widow's furnace and helped another choose a nursing home for her husband as his Alzheimer's disease worsened. When several people he's given rides to over the years have moved into nursing homes, he's kept right on visiting. Sometimes he's their only visitor.

"There's nothing he wouldn't do," Rygielski said. "He takes care of his clients like they're his own family members. He's taken care of so many people over the years."

Thormahlen said he "just takes people as they come," and has enjoyed getting to know the people he's helped, even in their most vulnerable moments battling illness, loneliness and mental and physical decline.

"Sometimes you just sit with them and talk to them," he said. "You do get involved in people's lives."

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