Every month, hundreds of nursing home residents across California board shuttle buses on their way to their local homeless shelters. They arrive with pans full of meals they’ve prepared themselves, and enough food to feed crowds that often exceed 100 hungry neighbors.
In 2016, Rockport Healthcare Services became the first organization to involve every nursing home and assisted living community they serve in fulfilling community service through its A Heart to Serve program . This community service-centered program presents service opportunities to every resident, including those who have physical and cognitive challenges, such as dementia, stroke, MS, Parkinson’s disease, or vision impairment, so that they 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 Lysobey, who started A Heart to Serve, and is chief community integration officer for Rockport Healthcare Services.
Wasserman, a nationally recognized geriatrician and CEO of Rockport Healthcare Services, says that it’s essential to have something meaningful to do in life. “Purpose can be one of the best ‘pills’ we offer older adults,” he says. “Programs like A Heart to Serve are far better than any medication we can put folks on.”
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.”
Lysobey gathered his 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 typically 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 that 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.
Residents in charge
“It’s a totally resident-run operation,” says Bonnie Jacobs, Vice President of Recreation and Social Services for Rockport Healthcare Services. The menu has been specially designed to both maximize resident participation and to provide healthy nutritious meals.
Physical and occupational therapists assess each of the resident’s abilities so that the residents can join together with partners whose abilities complement their own. In one instance, two residents, each with use of only one arm, collaborated to grate cheese – one turned the handle while the other fed the cheese into the grater.
“That’s how we work…we work together,” says Peggy Frerichs, president of the Resident Council at Windsor Chico Creek Care and Rehabilitation Center, and cofounder of Community Meals. “I’m in a wheelchair, but I’m doing it because I love it. It means so much to me to be a productive and well-rounded person.”
The residents’ outreach often extends beyond food service as they spend more time with the residents at the shelters they serve. On one occasion, after seeing a woman whose infant had no shoes, the nursing home residents went to work crocheting booties to hand out to families at their next shelter visit.
The gratitude goes both ways. “It’s not unusual for kids to bring thank-you cards to give to the residents, or to even sneak behind the table for a hug,” offers Jacobs.
Frerichs declares “It’s such a bursting of the heart when you can go to the shelter and look at the face of a little child as he says ‘thank you.’”
Community Meals is active in all care centers that Rockport Healthcare Services serves, totaling more than 70. Since its inception, A Heart to Serve volunteers have donated more than 2,200 hours to homeless shelters, transitional housing centers, and after-school programs for low-income kids, and there’s every indication that this is just the beginning.
A new A Heart to Serve program, Senior K9 Adoption, is currently being piloted at The Rehabilitation Center of Bakersfield. In this program residents work in partnership with local animal shelters to foster older dogs and help find them their new forever homes. During their time at the care community, the dogs are fed, walked, and nurtured back to health – entirely by the residents. Maintaining an adoption hotline, one resident, serving as the adoption coordinator, takes calls and screens adoption candidates.
These efforts came to a triumphant conclusion when on March 5, 2018, ten-year-old spaniel-mix Bootsy was placed with a new family and a forever home.
(Mike Wasserman, MD, CMD, Matthew Lysobey, MPH, LNHA, and Bonnie Jacobs, CTRS of Rockport Healthcare Services, and resident Peggy Frerichs were recent guests on the monthly webinar Conversations with Carmen, produced by Action Pact. Testimonies given by other resident were prerecorded.)
A Heart to Serve was featured on Action Pact’s Conversations with Carmen webinar on March 9. One participant sent this enthusiastic message to us.
“I just finished a meeting with an activities director and administrator from a local facility – shared the concept and they are already working on plans to put it together in three of their facilities. I am so excited…. thank you so much.”
From Sharon Deboever, Licensing Inspector, State of Virginia
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For more information about A Heart To Serve:
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This article was contributed by Rich Cleaves, Communication Manager, Rockport Healthcare Services.