Steve Morrison’s Experience as a Caregiver Inspired Him to Make a Difference for Others

Former educator Steve Morrison participates on AARP’s federal and state advocacy teams and serves as AARP’s representative for several organizations that help Northern Virginians stay in their homes as long as they wish. I spoke with Steve over lunch at The Swiss Bakery in Springfield, Virginia.

First, tell me about yourself.

My name is Steve Morrison. I grew up in Missouri and as a kid I lived in almost every type of venue. I was born in Kansas City, where we lived until I was four or five. We moved to a farm and lived there for eight or nine years. Living on the farm, we were poor. If we didn’t raise it, if we didn’t make it, if we didn’t sew it together, we didn’t have it. After three years of no income with two floods and one drought, things were tough. I’m not sorry that I went through that, though, because it makes me appreciate what I  have now.

When I was 13 years old, we moved from the farm to Columbia, Missouri. My father was working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and in 1962 we moved to the D.C. area. And I’ve been here ever since. I just celebrated my 43rd year in the house where I’ve lived in McLean, Virginia, since the 1970s.

I received a Master’s Degree in English History from American University, and I worked as a history teacher in Alexandria for 30 years, teaching ninth grade. If you’re going to teach, that’s the only grade to teach. I retired from teaching nearly 20 years ago, but I stayed on for several years as a consultant with the school system. That was a great transition into retirement – although as a teacher I’d been practicing retirement every summer for 30 years.

What are your volunteer tasks for AARP?

I am a member of AARP’s federal and state advocacy teams, advocating for issues that affect the 50-plus population. We are trained on the different priority issues and then meet with our legislators during the General Assembly Session and make local office visits.

I’m also the AARP representative for several organizations. I’m the chair of the Fairfax Area Long Term Care Coordinating Council, a network and informational council of about 60 entities that deal with long term care. Most of them are businesses involved with long term care in some form or another. We try to figure out how to help people stay in their homes for as long as they want to, with dignity.

I also represent AARP on the Northern Virginia Aging Network (NVAN) along with several other volunteers and the McLean Community Village Association. These groups are also involved in giving the community resources on how to stay in their homes. One of the services provided by the McLean Community Village Association is a reference desk for people to call or email or come by on a couple of afternoons a week with the difficulties they’re having. We then research those difficulties, find people or groups that can help, and provide referrals.

In addition, I’ve been a community outreach volunteer with AARP for almost 20 years. AARP Virginia hosts regular lunch and dinner groups. I volunteer at the lunch group at Mylo’s Grill in McLean. You don’t have to be a member to join us and enjoy a 15 percent discount. We don’t proselytize, we don’t sell anything, we don’t allow others to sell things – it’s strictly for fun and a sense of community. The next lunch group meets at 11:30 a.m. on Monday, May 20. There’s more information at https://aarp.cvent.com/McLeanSummerLunch.

What professional skills from your career carried into your AARP volunteering?

Crowd control – being a teacher!

What led you to volunteer for AARP?

In part, it was my experience decades ago caring for my father when he was terminally ill. When he got diagnosed with cancer in 1975, he was alone, as my mother had died several years earlier. Since I was a teacher, I was not working in the summer, so I was his primary caregiver for that period. There was very little, if any, support for me on how to be a caregiver, so I was out there on a desert island trying to figure out what to do. It was difficult and stressful, and I’m sure I was not very good or successful at it. When I returned to work in the fall, we had to arrange for my father to have a bed in a nursing home. He died three weeks later. That was one of the loneliest days of my life.

Later in my life, that experience led me to spend time and effort trying to make sure others in my position didn’t have the same problems. Happily, there are many more programs for support now, and I think I’ve contributed to that effort.

As to the specific reason I started volunteering with AARP, a friend whom I met while I was teaching in Alexandria had moved on to the state Department of Education. When he retired, he joined the AARP state advocacy group, which had just relocated from Alexandria to Richmond. When I retired, he said: “You need to become a volunteer, because you’d be good at it.” And so I did.

What’s the most rewarding thing about volunteering for AARP?

Knowing that you make a difference, no matter how little or how big it is, that you’re out there trying. As a teacher, I always considered myself a public servant who was in it for making a difference. And you know after 30 years you can’t quit, you’ve got to keep going.

Volunteering for AARP Virginia has also allowed me to meet nice people from all over the state, whom I never would have known otherwise. I’ve met volunteers from southwest Virginia, Tidewater, Shenandoah – good people who are extremely involved in looking after our community of folks who are 50-plus. I think at this point I might be the longest-serving member of the advocacy team. We just had a fellow who retired who’d probably volunteered for 40 years.

I think we do good for the 50-plus community, but personally I think the camaraderie we have developed is a very important part of volunteering.

What would you say to others about volunteering for AARP?

To have passion and to be concerned about the welfare of people 50-plus, because there are a lot of 50-plus people who are struggling. I learned that 20 percent of the 50-plus population in Northern Virginia live on Social Security alone. You can’t live on that in southwest Virginia, much less here.

What is your philosophy of aging?

My philosophy of aging is I want to continue it! You’ve heard the saying: “Getting older is not for sissies, but it beats the hell out of the alternative.”

We all know that you can’t stop aging, but you can do things to slow it down, and one of those things is to be active in all different kinds of things – whatever you want to do, and I choose to be a volunteer. Because your brain likes to be active and if your brain’s not active and your body’s not active, aging becomes very difficult.

How does your life at this stage compare with the lives of your parents?

This year I will be three-quarters of a century old. Unfortunately, my parents both died too soon – my mother at 52, my father at 57 – from smoking-related diseases. I’m always sorry that I never got to know them as an adult.

What would you tell younger people about the positive side of aging?

The positive side of aging that I adhere to is from looking at Asian cultures, where the older you are, the wiser you are. Our culture is just the opposite of that. People don’t understand that, as Confucius said: “True wisdom is knowing what you don’t know.” Young people should take advantage of the wisdom of older people.

What do you do for fun?

Besides volunteering, I love being with my grandchildren. Our four grandchildren live in the area, and my wife and I spend a lot of time with them.

I like to read, especially historical fiction. Sharon Kay Penman’s books starting with The Sunne in Splendour, Ken Follett’s trilogy starting with The Pillars of the Earth – once you start reading, you can’t put them down!

I also like to be outside, so I spend a lot of time in the yard. I do an hour of physical activity every day – qigong or walking or something like that. Before the nearby recreation center opened with a track inside, I used to walk through our neighborhood. There are only 60 homes, and so I got to know almost everyone. They used to kid me that I was the mayor of the neighborhood.

I enjoy socialization, and that’s another reason I do volunteering.