‘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: Searching for wisdom in a confused world

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Jordan Peterson became an overnight celebrity with the success of his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Random House, 2018). A viral interview from January of this year with Kathy Newman of England’s Channel 4 News brought immediate attention to Peterson’s newly released book, which has sold over two million copies since its release. The interview proved emblematic of Peterson’s popularity for attempting to retrieve common sense and to push back against the ideology overtaking our society.

Why has Peterson proved to be so popular?  A clinical psychologist, who teaches psychology at the University of Toronto, Peterson addresses issues that people care about: finding meaning, relationships, parenting, and gender, to name a few. People are looking for a guide, they desire wisdom — knowing how to order and make sense of reality — and Peterson has offered some needed insights. He tells his readers, “Don’t underestimate the power of vision and direction. These are irresistible forces, able to transform what might appear to be unconquerable obstacles into traversable pathways and expanding opportunities. Strengthen the individual. Start with yourself. Take care with yourself. Define who you are. Refine your personality. Choose your destination and articulate your Being” (63).

This quote illuminates both the allure of Peterson’s writing, helping people to seek definition for their lives, but also its limits, as the definition of self he recommends lacks mooring. Writing from the viewpoint of secular psychology, Peterson can help us to reflect, but his 12 Rules for Life can come across as sophisticated self-help devoid of deeper wisdom. He engages the Western tradition, including the Bible, and offers a fresh, but ultimately unsatisfying, reflection of the stories that define our tradition. He does bring needed common sense, such as “stop doing what you know to be wrong,” (which should not even need to be said) but fails to provide answers to the ultimate questions that define meaning and identity (157).

Greater depth and wisdom can be found in Leon Kass’ Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times (Encounter, 2017). Kass, a Jewish medical doctor and bioethicist, draws from his lengthy experience in science and teaching the Great Books at the University of Chicago to take us deeper into the human condition and point us toward a richer understanding of the human person — body, mind and soul. Kass, like Peterson, does not write from a religious perspective, but engages the same general themes and classic works, such as the Bible, though with a more convincing explanation of their meaning.

Kass’ book has four major sections, treating themes of love, human dignity, education and our higher aspirations. Kass guides us to reconsider the importance of the foundational goods of life — finding meaning in work and married life — as well as calling us to “the cultivation in each of us of the disposition actively to seek the truth and to make the truth our own” (256). We pursue this liberation by entering into the great tradition of Western thought, which provides an “education in and for thoughtfulness. It awakens, encourages, and renders habitual thoughtful reflection about weighty human concerns, in quest of what is simply true and good” (ibid.).

The thoughtfulness encouraged by Kass is needed more than ever to address the key concerns he raises: a collapse of courtship and marriage, biomedical challenges to the integrity of human nature, and a decline of citizenship. The first two themes share a common source in the “the rejection of a teleological view of nature,” which finds no intrinsic purpose in the human body or even life itself (54). Speaking of the threat of biotechnology and transhumanism, but in a way applicable to gender as well, he relates that “only if there is a human givenness that is also good and worth respecting — either as we find it or as it could be perfected without ceasing to be itself — does the given serve as a positive guide for choosing what to alter and what to leave alone” (149). We must learn to appreciate and cultivate the good of our nature, rather than manipulating and controlling it to our own demise. The same is true of our nation, as Kass, drawing on Abraham Lincoln, points to the need for “enhancing reverence for the Constitution and its laws” (377), as we appreciate, preserve and advance the heritage of our country.

Kass, drawing on his unique background, guides us through an integrated discovery of the good and points us toward the wisdom we need to live a worthy life.