Senior advocate finds her days are still busy in retirement

It’s her cat and not her alarm clock that now wakes Judy Bellome each morning.

The cat allows her to sleep a bit later before it reminds her it’s time for breakfast, but Bellome says once she’s out of bed, her days are as full as before her retirement as executive director of Douglas County Visiting Nurses.

“I’m not drawing a paycheck, but I’m probably busier than I ever have been,” she said. “That’s the fun of it, because I’m doing what I love.”

Bellome retired in 2013 after nearly a decade of heading Douglas County Visiting Nurses. It was the final stop in a career as a caregiver, nurse, administrator and teacher.

It’s volunteerism that keeps Bellome busy in retirement. She’s been active enough and done her volunteer work well enough to be recognized last year with the AARP Kansas Andrus Award for Community Service, which the nonprofit says is its “most prestigious and visible state volunteer award.”

She is a member of the AARP Kansas Executive Council and heads its Capital City Task Force, Bellome said. In that latter capacity, Bellome advocates for senior issues in the Kansas Legislature. One recent legislative accomplishment she’s proud of is the passage of 2017’s Kansas Lay Caregiver Act. The bill requires hospitals take steps to ensure discharged patients have proper care at home by providing tutorials to those they identify as their caregivers.?

“It was something I was very passionate about and glad we got done,” she said. “It’s a very simple idea. Some hospitals do a great job with that, but in the three years we worked to get the bill passed, we heard so many stories of patients ready to go home and their caregivers were not sure what to do once they got home.”

Her advocacy for seniors extends beyond her work with AARP. Locally, she is on the Douglas County Senior Resource Center Board of Directors, and helped run the agency with fellow board members Dennis Domer and Steve Tesdahl before current executive director Marvel Williamson came aboard in 2016 to provide stable leadership for the center, she said.

Bellome said her role as chair of the Lawrence-Douglas Advocacy Council on Aging has helped her take the pulse of the county’s senior community. The board was started more than 30 years ago with members appointed by the city of Lawrence and Douglas County to study senior issues and make appropriate recommendations, she said.

“We’re looking right now at transportation and housing,” she said. “They are the big issues.”

A year before her retirement, Bellome became active with a start-up nonprofit called Community Village Lawrence, which seeks to address senior service gaps in transportation and other areas.

“A village is about neighbors helping neighbors,” she said. “It is a neighborhood of people who get together and provide volunteer services and develop a vetting process for service providers like plumbers or roofers. The listed service providers have agreed to give a discount to the members.”

But a discount from some service providers is just the start of the benefits senior members get for the $30 it costs to become a Community Village member, Bellome said.

“For that, they get transportation for things like a trip to the doctor or to a grocery store or they have a volunteer pick up their groceries for them,” she said. “Right now, we have about 65 members and I think we have about 90 volunteers. The nice thing about it is the volunteers can provide rides in the evenings or weekends. You don’t have those opportunities through the city or any of the other organizations.”

There are about 200 villages nationwide, but the Community Village Lawrence is the only one in Kansas, Bellome said. It is her hope to expand villages to Baldwin City, Eudora and Lecompton, she said.

“To do that, you have to have that two-pronged approach,” she said. “You have to have community support and a leader, because the volunteers are the key to this.”

Douglas County Commission Chair Nancy Thellman said she had served with Bellome on multiple boards. Bellome’s dedication was instrumental in the success of Community Village Lawrence, Thellman said.

“That a successful organization I think is going to stick,” she said. “It has a good board. It was tenuous for a while, but Judy dug down and made it work.”

Bellome works with her husband, John, on another volunteer effort that is close to their hearts. They tap into their health care knowledge and military background — John is a retired U.S. Army colonel and she was a nurse in the Army Reserves for 12 years — to present programs on scams targeting ex-service personnel, as well as services and opportunities available to veterans, she said.

Her parents and her mother-in-law provided examples for how to stay active later in life, Bellome said. After her father retired as an Air Force officer in the Strategic Air Command, he played golf nearly every day until he died at age 92, she said. Her mother, an Army nurse in World War II, went back to school and earned a bachelor’s degree in her later years. Bellome said her mother later was put in charge of infection control of an Oklahoma Veterans Administration hospital at an age when she could have stayed home and enjoyed her grandchildren.

In her retirement years, her mother-in-law prepared daily meals for those unable to cook for themselves in her New York City neighborhood, Bellome said.

“They were such good role models,” she said. “Growing old is a challenge for everybody, but people can transition in a meaningful way and find a very full life.”