‘Love in action’ fights nursing home residents’ loneliness

Bessie’s Hope intergenerational programs benefit young, elders alike

Roxanne King

Her life’s work, she says, is a legacy to her grandmother and was inspired through prayer.

“I was mad at God at the time, asking ‘Why does [Granny] have to endure this indignity at the end of her life?’’ Sharon Holloway, co-founder of Bessie’s Hope intergenerational programs, said describing her anguish that her grandmother, Bessie Stephens, was in a nursing home with advanced Alzheimer’s, confused and lonely despite regular visits from Holloway and her mother.

“I started hearing this voice, ‘Bring them together the young and the old,’” she continued. “It was God’s voice, inaudible to others but loud to me, and I saw me working with elders and my friend Sharron [Brandrup] working with kids.”

Holloway, a music therapist and clinical chaplain, and Brandrup, whose expertise is intergenerational program development, launched the nonprofit Bessie’s Hope (formerly Rainbow Bridge) in 1989 to bring community awareness and participation into nursing homes. The two also wrote and produced a highly praised musical about their work called, “Together.”

Bessie’s Hope offers three programs: youth and elders, family and elders, and community and elders. Although non-Catholic, the organization partners with Catholic entities.

“We’re the only organization in the country doing what we do, providing education and training for all ages to be able to interact and have mutually rewarding relationships with elders in nursing homes, including those with Alzheimer’s,” Holloway said.

I started hearing this voice, ‘Bring them together the young and the old.’”

Youth and elders is the organization’s largest program. In it, pre-school through high-school age youths visit nursing home residents to engage in activities including reading, playing games, making crafts, and interviewing elders to learn about their history.

Research shows that intergenerational relationships are mutually beneficial, psychologically and socially, Holloway said. While youths gain self-esteem, respect for others, life and academic skills, elders get companionship, intellectual stimulation and the chance to feel useful.

“The training is what makes our work so successful for youths and elders,” Holloway said, adding that among other skills, participants learn how to be present by looking into the elder’s eyes, to slow down their speaking pace and to empower elders by doing activities with them, not for them.

Sixty percent of nursing home residents don’t receive visitors, Holloway said.

“It’s not the nursing home’s fault that people are estranged from their families by distance,” she said. “But we’re attacking that percentage.”

Through the program, participants said, youths learn empathy and to calm high energy, while elders seem to come to life.

“I look forward to seeing those young people,” Mijee Mumaugh, 89, a resident of Denver’s Gardens at St. Elizabeth, said about visits from Escuela de Guadalupe School students through Bessie’s Hope. “It’s a good outlet for us to be with someone other than our own age group.

“I have my own piece of refrigerator art,” she added. “That’s something special since I don’t have grandkids!”

Escuela student Alexis Ibarra, 11, enjoyed his visits as a third-grader at the Gardens so much, that he asked permission to take part the following year as well.

Bessie’s Hope was created to try to make a difference in the lives of those who feel unloved and unwanted.”

“I was happy because … we’d go and cheer them up and they’d be happy—not in their rooms lonely,” he explained. “They were very nice and would compliment us.”

Lauren Carranza, third grade teacher at Escuela, has had her classes participate with Bessie’s Hope monthly during the school year for the past several years as part of their first Communion preparation to make their community service requirement a “living, breathing,” meaningful experience.

“It happens that third-graders and elders have the same interests,” she said with a laugh.

Ibarra agreed.

“They like to do what we like to do!” he said.

Holloway noted that St. Mother Teresa called being unloved, unwanted and forgotten the greatest poverty.

“Bessie’s Hope was created to try to make a difference in the lives of those who feel unloved and unwanted,” she said.

Carranza said her students relish doing their part.

“The kids know they … can share themselves with others and learn from others,” she said. “They’re surprised by how much they connect with the elders and form relationships with them. It’s like they give each other a gift back and forth.

“That’s their ‘love in action.’”

Bessie’s Hope

For information on programs and/or upcoming events, including Bessie’s Hope 14th annual Bowl-a-Rama fundraiser to benefit at-risk youth and nursing home residents, visit BessiesHope.org.

COMING UP: Celebrate and support the sacred gift of life

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Editor’s Note: This column is adapted from Archbishop Aquila’s remarks to the 2018 Celebrate Life March, which took place on January 13th in front of the Colorado State Capitol building.

As we gather today to celebrate life, we must remember three things: 1) life is a gift, 2) life is sacred, and 3) rebuilding a culture of life requires joy.

We are here today to celebrate our joy over the gift of life. Every minute and every day we live presents us with an abundance of gifts that seem mundane and are often overlooked: our health, the gift of creation, or something as simple as having food on our plates. Above all, we should give thanks for the gift of life!

As people involved in protecting life at every stage, the challenge we face is not just one of providing resources to mothers and fathers in need or ensuring people battling a terminal illness have good palliative care. Our challenge is to also communicate to them that they are loved, that their unborn child or their own lives are gifts, no matter the circumstances.

Many of us fought in 2016 to prevent doctor-assisted suicide from becoming legal in Colorado, and one person who helped in that effort was a courageous man named J.J. Hanson. J.J. was a Marine veteran and father of two young children who was working for a real estate investment firm in Florida when he found out he had glioblastoma multiforme brain cancer. His doctors told him that it was a very aggressive cancer that meant he only had four months to live.

Despite his odds, J.J. resolved to fight. His motto was: “Every single day is a gift, and we can’t let that go.” What’s even more remarkable is the fact that J.J. dedicated his time and energy to fighting the legalization of assisted suicide around the country, all while undergoing chemotherapy and other treatments. There was hardly a speaking engagement or trip to testify before a legislature that J.J. turned down. His conviction that life was a gift propelled him to defend that gift however he could. As pro-life people, we need to have that same conviction.

Just about two weeks ago, on December 30th, J.J. was called home to the Father – three years beyond what doctors told him to expect. St. Anthony of Padua church in upstate New York, where his funeral was held, was filled with people who paid tribute to how J.J. inspired them to embrace every moment of life, no matter its difficulties as a gift, not something to be thrown away.

All of us are called to embrace life as J.J. did, and in doing so we will help recover the culture of life that is being neglected or forgotten as people cast God and truth aside.

I have said that life is a gift, and while that is true, it’s more than that. Life is also sacred. Life is sacred because it comes from God, the God who is love and who has loved us first. Our lives are also sacred because our beings are made in God’s image and likeness.

We are called to participate in the love of God and to see that every human being, from the moment of conception until natural death, is invited into relationship with God. We are called to ensure that life is set aside for God, that it is honored and recognized as sacred.

The struggle for so many today is that they do not even believe in a god; their only god is themselves. They truly do not believe in the God who is love. And because of this limited worldview, a person’s life can lose its value if their “quality of life” declines.

In the words of Pope Francis to participants in the 2013 Day for Life, “All life has inestimable value even the weakest and most vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn and the poor, are masterpieces of God’s creation, made in his own image, destined to live forever, and deserving of the utmost reverence and respect.”

When Jesus speaks about the Judgement of the Nations in Matthew 25, he tells us that life is always sacred by saying that when we love the weak and vulnerable, we are loving him.

The more that we can love the sacred gift of life and celebrate it with joy, the more we will contribute to building a true culture of life in the U.S.

A wonderful example of concretely loving the sacred gift of life is a story I recently heard about a 15-year-old Colorado teenager named Missy, who showed up with her parents at an abortion clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Missy was a sophomore in high school and was in her second trimester of pregnancy. As they approached the clinic, some pro-life volunteers who were parked nearby in a mobile crisis pregnancy van saw them and invited them inside. The volunteers learned that Missy wanted to complete high school and that this desire was pushing her to consider an abortion. One of the volunteers told Missy about how she was faced with the same choice as a teen and chose to keep her child. “It wasn’t easy, but it was amazing,” she reassured Missy.

Missy also worried about the father of the child not being around, to which her dad responded by taking her hand and saying, “I’ll be that man in your child’s life.”

This kind of accompaniment and willingness to heroically support the gift of life is vitally important to forming a culture that welcomes the unborn, the elderly, the disabled and the dying as a gift.

Building a culture of life begins by first receiving the love of the Father, who loves each of us as his sons and daughters. He never abandons us, even though we might abandon him or reject his love.

A culture of life grows when we share his love with others, helping them to embrace life as a gift and a joy, rather than a burden.

Life is a gift, it is sacred and our celebration of the joy of life helps build a culture of life.

I encourage you to be those who are unafraid to give witness to life. Be not afraid to give witness to life. Even though people might ridicule you, yell at you, or reject you, know that Jesus experienced it all so that you might have life, and life abundantly.

May God bless you and help you celebrate life in 2018!