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.
“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.’”
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.