After Wife’s Battle with Cancer, Minnesota Man Offers Care and Compassion as Senior Volunteer

Daily Point of Light # 6544 Jun 19, 2019

Married for 54 years, Dan Cunningham says he learned a great deal from his wife Sharon, chief among her attributes he says was her caring nature. When the roles were reversed and Dan became the caretaker, he stepped in without hesitation, devoting himself to Sharon as she battled, and then lost her fight to cancer.

In the wake of her passing, Dan has dedicated his time to helping other caregivers. Volunteering as a Respite Volunteer for FamilyMeans Caregiving & Aging Services in Stillwater, Minnesota, 77-year-old Dan gives caretakers the break they so desperately need. Supporting caregivers who are caring for someone with a chronic illness, disability or frailty, Dan serves as a compassionate listener, caring and safe presence and sometimes, joyous distraction, for sick or frail individuals. In addition to his volunteerism with FamilyMeans, Dan volunteers with his local Meals on Wheels and Community Thread’s transportation program, which provides door-to-door transportation service for older adults and others who are unable to drive to medical appointments.

Providing non-medical companionship, supervision and serving as a friendly new face, Dan is helping those who need special care and attention most in his community, and is today’s Daily Point of Light award honoree. Points of Light spoke to Dan to learn more about his volunteerism.

What inspires you to volunteer?
I enjoy making people happy, and I enjoy making people laugh. I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction when I see in their eyes an appreciation for whatever small thing I have done. It’s a magical feeling.

Describe your role as a Respite Volunteer.
I will visit a home and allow the caregiver a chance to take time away for errands or just to have a break. I will play games with the individual, we sing songs, or we sometimes – (don’t tell anybody) – both take a nap, only I have to keep my eyes open (laughs)! We talk about family issues and so forth, the individual will confide in me. It’s a wonderful experience for these people to be able to share their lives with you, and it keeps me going.

Dan Cunningham Daily Point of Light Award Honoree 6544
Dan Cunningham creates friendships and supports caregivers as a FamilyMeans volunteer./Courtesy Dan Cunningham

In a way, you’re caring for some individuals like you cared for your wife. What does that feel like?
It’s the greatest feeling in the world. When you start to volunteer, you receive almost as much as you give. These people look forward to my arrival, and you know what? I look forward to seeing them again. Some of these people are lonely or isolated, so you give them conversation that they probably don’t have a lot of in their everyday lives. You become friends with these people, whether you want to or not (laughs). It’s very therapeutic for me, and certainly for some of them, to see in their eyes the enjoyment they receive when you bring them a meal, visit them, or bring them to appointments.

What would your wife say about your volunteerism?
She’d tell me that, number one, the lawn needs mowing. Secondly, she was such a caregiver to her family and friends. I learned a lot from her. She was a wonderful cook and a wonderful companion. I am very fortunate to have been a part of her life. So she would have been proud about my service. She would be proud of her children. And she would express that in so many ways.

What’s your life motto?
This was one of the very first things I learned about life when I joined the Scouts as a young whippersnapper: Always be helpful, friendly. Be courteous, be kind. Always be cheerful. Be thrifty, brave, try to be clean, and reverent in your own way. But also, enjoy people. We only have so much time in our lives. Take advantage of being helpful to others and that will make you a very happy person.

What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
I see some other people that have been volunteers and have performed service to others that is simply overwhelming. Their whole lifetime, they’ve volunteered. People that have gone above and beyond the call of duty to help others. That’s always impressed me.

Dan Cunningham Daily Point of Light Award 6544
The FamilyMeans 2019 Volunteer Recognition Event. FamilyMeans volunteers support caregivers who are caring for someone with a chronic illness, disability or frailty./Courtesy Dan Cunningham

Share one personal story with me from your volunteerism.
One individual with FamilyMeans who I volunteered with was approximately my age, so I identified with his situation. He was going through a dementia situation, but he had this amazing skill, he loved to play pool. You’ve heard of Rudolf Walter Wanderone Jr., an American professional billiards player, who was known as “Minnesota Fats”? This man was “Minnesota Skinny” (laughs). He had the complete mastery of the cue ball and a knowledge of pool that I’ve never seen before. I’ve always wanted to be a good pool player, so I learned from him. I was looking forward to him improving my skills as I volunteered. He beat me in pool over 160 times, no, make that 180 times. He allowed me to win maybe a couple of times, I think he began to feel sorry for me (laughs). I so enjoyed him, and he and his wife welcomed me in their home. We had such a wonderful time together. I’ll always remember him.

What do you want people to learn from your story?
Each one of us have a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong and what we should do and what we should not do. If we just take the higher, loftier aspects of our contribution to other people I think it would make a better world, better communities, neighborhoods, relationships. I think we all can do that if we put our minds to it. In return, you get so much satisfaction out of participating and getting involved with other people’s lives and concerns. So many people need help. I’m very proud to be a member of the FamilyMeans group.

How can readers help?
Please check the FamilyMeans website for more information about how you can help:

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Dan Cunningham? Click here for local volunteer opportunities.


Marlena Baldacci