Elders find purpose through service and community commitment

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Jennifer Cabe
Jennifer Cabe

It's no secret that nonprofits and community organizations always need dedicated volunteers. Unfortunately, residents of care communities are rarely tapped to provide much-needed service. Perhaps we are too busy seeing the things that residents CANNOT do, and fail to see all that they CAN do!

If changing that imbalance makes sense to you, A Heart to Serve volunteer and Windsor Creek Care and Rehabilitation Center resident council president Peggy Frerichs agrees: “When you can give back, it is so wonderful for your soul. I love volunteering because it makes me feel like a whole human being.”

Pioneer Network values remind us that “each person can and does make a difference” and that “all elders are entitled to self-determination wherever they live.”

In 2016, the team at Rockport Healthcare Services brought those values to live when they became the first organization to involve every nursing home and assisted living community they serve in fulfilling community service through A Heart to Serve — so that every resident, including people who have physical and cognitive challenges, such as dementia, stroke, MS, Parkinson's disease, or vision impairment, can experience the transformative power of purpose through service.

“We have needs in every town and city, and we have people living in nursing homes who are ready to help. Why not harness that?” says Matthew Lysobey, MPH, LNHA, who started A Heart to Serve, and is chief community integration officer for Rockport Healthcare Services.

Purpose through service

Leadership at Rockport Heathcare Systems “gets” it.  As Dr. Mike Wasserman, MD, CMD, a nationally recognized geriatrician and CEO for Rockport Healthcare Services says, it's essential to have something meaningful to do in life.

“We in geriatrics talk about focusing on function and quality of life. This program has taught me to add purpose to the list of important things that are critical to how we focus on older adults,” Wasserman says. “To do that, we need to look at what's important to the person. Purpose has been shown in studies to not only reduce depression and help with other chronic conditions, but a study from the National Institutes of Health even showed that having greater purpose in one's life reduced the symptoms and progress of Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.”

At the beginning

Resident and staff feedback, and Lysobey's own years of experience as a licensed nursing home administrator, catalyzed A Heart to Serve when he was a nursing home administrator.

“We had good surveys, stable staffing, and people were motivated,” he says. “But when I looked around the home, I saw that most of the residents were still sitting like lumps in their wheelchairs.”

How did Lysobey and the team do to get things started?  They gathered the staff and asked everyone what was missing. A CNA answered, “If I was here, and all I had to look forward to in my life was thanking other people, and no one needed me anymore, I don't care how nice everyone was to me — I would feel like a burden.”

Lysobey says that at that moment, he realized that residents are mostly care receivers.

“We're the caregivers, and we're so focused on that,” he says. “But even if we're the best of the best, if our residents feel no one needs them anymore, what reason do they have to get out of bed?”

Lysobey gathered the residents together the next day and said, “It's time to give back to the community. What's it gonna be?”

A 94-year-old resident raised her hand and said, “I think we should feed the homeless.”

“I thought it was a crazy idea, and I was hoping people had other ideas,” he says, but in the end, all the residents wanted to do the same thing. That was the start of Community Meals.

A ‘crazy idea' becomes sustained service, priceless smiles

Once a month, dedicated volunteers gather at their nursing homes to prepare a meal. Carrots are chopped. Cheese is shredded. Smiles are shared. They then make the journey to their local homeless shelter where they serve the meals they've prepared. For the program's participants, Community Meals isn't about handouts — it's about outreach. The residents scoop their hard work onto plates and pass them across the table — what they get back is a room full of smiles, a few friends, and a renewed sense of purpose within themselves.

Today, Community Meals is active in all care centers that Rockport Healthcare Services serves, totaling more than 70. A Heart to Serve volunteers — who are all residents — have donated more than 2,200 hours to homeless shelters, transitional housing centers, and after-school programs for low-income kids.

Wasserman's idea that service builds purpose is evident everywhere you look. As Frerichs explains, “It's so important to share what we have with everyone. And the homeless need us. That's the best thing — they need me.”

Continuing the story … sharing the vision

While the work being done at the communities of Rockport Healthcare Services is making quite an impact, the team at Rockport wanted to do more. They wanted to spread the word about the value of Community Commitment and find ways for more residents to benefit from the opportunity to a part of programs like A Heart to Serve.  And so a partnership was born with Pioneer Network, an organization whose vision is to create “a culture of aging that is life-affirming, satisfying and meaningful.”

At the 2017 annual Pioneer Network meeting, leadership from Rockport Healthcare Services and Pioneer Network shared plans to create the Community Commitment Award.  This award recognizes members of the long-term care community for their volunteer service to help enhance their communities. It will be awarded at the 2018 Pioneering a New Culture of Aging conference in August in Denver to three teams, in recognition of a volunteer project that is benefiting not only the residents living in their communities, but their communities at-large — their towns, their neighborhoods, their states!

We know that there are great things happening out there — and we are committed to help spread the word about residents and communities who are engaged in meaningful and purposeful projects.

How often do we read about all the bad things happening in the field of long-term care? Well, it's time to start spreading the news about the great things that we know are happening in communities across the country.

Do you know of an organization that is making a difference through community commitment?  Maybe it is your own organization? If it is, it's time to toot your horn — share your story — and perhaps win a chance to bring your team to the 2018 Pioneer Network Conference and have your story shared!

To learn more, check out the Pioneer Network & Rockport Healthcare Services Community Commitment Award page on the Pioneer Network website.

For more information, contact joan.devine@pioneernetwork.net or Matthew Lysobey at mlysobey@rockporthc.com.

Jennifer Cabe is the Vice President, Health Literacy and Social Impact Rockport Healthcare Services and Joan Devine (right) is the Director of Education for Pioneer Network.

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