The joy of giving is certainly something that is a topic of many conversations during this holiday season. How often do we hear things like, “It’s better to give than receive,” or “the best part of Christmas is watching the look on someone’s face when they open that special gift.”  

But for elders, and especially for those living in skilled nursing, assisted living and other senior housing communities, there are often limited opportunities to give. In fact, as providers, we have traditionally seen our role as taking care of these individuals. As a society, we all too often see these individuals as beyond the point of their life when they have much to give.  We tell them it’s time to relax — it’s time to let others do the giving, to take care of them.

But did we ask them if that’s what THEY want? Have we explored what would make a difference for them and give them a reason to get up and out of bed each morning? Have we taken the time to find out what would bring meaning and purpose to their lives?

As communities across the country and around the world are working to change the culture of aging, those types of questions are just what many communities have been asking their residents, and the answers have inspired some incredible opportunities for meaning, purpose, and to give. One organization that asked those questions was Rockport Healthcare Services, and the answer they got, that residents wanted to help feed the homeless, resulted in an incredible program, A Heart to Serve. This program became the inspiration for a partnership between Pioneer Network and Rockport Healthcare Services and the creation of the Community Commitment Awards.

At the Pioneer Network annual conference this past August, the first annual Community Commitment Awards were presented to three communities who have developed programs with their residents to not only support meaning and purpose for individual residents in their communities, but also provide a way for residents to give to the greater community. When you hear these stories, especially as told by the residents, you know that they have indeed found a gold mine!

What we learned from these communities was not only the power of giving, but that there is no limit to who and where the giving can happen – or what the giving needs to look like.  It is as individual as each elder and each community.

Who would have thought that a group of elders in a small, rural nursing home in Louisiana, led by their Dining Manager, would create an impact on their community as has happened with “The Animal House Club.” It all started when two residents, Ms. Valerie Gadd and Ms. Wanda Williams, decided to help shelter animals by making and donating throw pads. It has grown into a program that involves residents, staff, families and the Sabine Humane Society Shelter where animals are provided foster care and opportunities for adoption.

Move across the country to Foulkeways at Gwynedd in Pennsylvania, a CCRC that has developed an incredible program called Senior Scholars. Seeing university students coming into their community for clinical rotations, the residents at the nursing home wanted to do more to take an active role in their education. Gus Beck, M.D., a pulmonologist living in the nursing home wanted to educate the students about pulmonary anatomy and physiology. Beck created a curriculum and began teaching. He soon became a favorite professor among the students, and thus was born “Senior Scholars.”  

He was soon joined by other residents including Bunny Browning, a registered nurse who enlightened students with stories of how she survived as a RN in a Japanese prison camp in World War II and Bob Neff, a resident who took on the duty of providing student tours and an orientation to living in a CCRC.

The desire of residents to share this knowledge and experience has grown, and there are now classes being taught to students and staff on topics including Living with Macular Degeneration; Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; Living with Multiple Sclerosis; Total Knee Replacement;  Hearing loss; Coping with Loss; 90 & living alone with multiple health issues; Living with Arthritis; and Developing positive attitudes towards aging and illness.

The Senior Scholars are truly engaged and have found purpose in molding the next generation of professionals.

Further north in the city of Saskatoon in Saskatchewan, Canada, the residents and staff at Sherbrooke Community Centre have partnered with the Saskatoon Public School Division to form the “We Day/Free the Children Committee.” This program promotes intergenerational learning where students and elders create relationships as the foundation for learning. The elders serve as mentors to the students and together they work on projects with the potential to change the world. Projects like “Let our Voices Be Heard” drumming project, the creation of a Butterfly Garden and a Community Garden. They are also working together with the city of Saskatoon on a recycling campaign, making their community a greener place.  

In these three communities, there is no doubt that elders have a reason to get up in the morning, and that those around them see the value of all they are giving. It’s all possible because the voice of elders was heard, and the teams believed in them enough to join together with them, rolling up their sleeves and finding ways to make their vision a reality.

So, as we approach the holiday season, consider what you can give the elders in your community this year? If your community has already found a way to support meaning and purpose in the lives of elders and a program that gives to the greater community, tell them thank you, and share the story. If that is not happening yet, give them the gift of a greater voice, a chance to tell you what THEY would like to give. Then, how about a New Year’s resolution to think out of the box and work together to make giving happen?

Joan Devine, RN, is the Director of Education at Pioneer Network.