Sue Saxton: Caregiver to Camper to Volunteer Extraordinaire
Why did you make your latest transition?
For 42 years, I worked in the field of long-term care. I knew in college that I wanted to work with older people. I loved to hear their stories and it was very fulfilling. Once I got to know a friend of Susan B. Anthony and she shared her experiences with me. Another time a woman had me read her pages from her 1912 diary and I heard about my town in that era. The last ten years of my career I lived near the nursing home where I worked and also cared for my chronically ill elderly spouse. When he died two years ago, I began thinking about what I wanted to do. I am the oldest of seven and I had always wanted to spend more time with my youngest sister, who is 11 years my junior. I established a home base with her, got rid of everything I owned, bought a small van, converted it into a camper and took to the road. But it turned out that my two older dogs didn’t like camping at all. The longer trips didn’t work out that well for me either. I went on a camping trip in Utah—and it got really cold, below freezing at night. The heater went out in the middle of the night one night and I couldn’t sleep. I realized that I would have to make some adjustments to integrate my love of camping in a different way.
What are you doing now?
Now I am living with my sister and I just go camping on weekends while she watches my dogs. I joined Sisters on the Fly—a group of women outdoor adventurers. They started as a fly fishing group, but now they are just generally into outdoor activities. They plan trips and have regional groups. They really support each other on the road. Since I’m around more, I also started to look into local volunteering. I’m doing a Volunteer Ombudsman Program to become a nursing home assisted living advocate. It’s mostly stuff I know because I worked in the field, but I have enjoyed the training. Another thing I did is CERT – Community Emergency Response Team—training for pre-first responders to disasters. I completed 24 hours of training, which included lectures and role-playing. CERT volunteers learn to stop bleeding, open airways, search and rescue skills and emergency medical care. I want to do the Appalachian Trail with my sister when she retires in 4 years, but for now I’m engaged with these volunteer commitments and short camping trips when I can.
What surprised you most about the transition?
I expected to love the whole camping thing and be whole-hog and close to full-time. It was colder and lonelier than I thought it would be, even when I traveled with groups. I haven’t spent much time alone in my life and I found I didn’t like it as much as I thought I might.
How did you decide to pursue these opportunities?
I quit working earlier than I had originally planned because I no longer felt fulfilled in my work. My mother died at 67 of cancer and I felt she had a bad work environment. I didn’t want to make that mistake and stay in a situation I was unhappy in. So, I retired at 62. There were some financial security questions and some health insurance concerns, but I worked it out. I don’t have any serious health problems, but you never know.
What advice would you give to someone in the same circumstances?
There’s a little bit of stepping out into the unknown that is hard, but I’ve just done it and anyone can. For example, with the CERT training I thought I’d never be able to do it, there’s all these young guys in the class, but I just kept going. There’s a role in the process for everyone. Stepping out of your comfort zone is the first thing to do.
Given your experience both professionally and personally, do you have a top 5 or 10 list of things that you would tell people if they would like to follow in your footsteps or follow a similar path?
-Join groups in your interest area.
-Visualize what you want first—see the dream before you try it out.
-Interact with people.
-Be willing to check things out that you think you don’t want; that’s learning too.
Sue Saxton is an adventurer, a lifelong learner and an Amava Member. She worked in the long-term care field for 42 years before designing a life of dog-loving, camping and community volunteering.