Americans are getting older. More than 10,000 Baby Boomers reach retirement age daily, creating a startling demographic shift. Currently one in eight Americans are 65 or older. By 2030 those numbers will rise to one in five. A popular retirement destination, Florida has the largest elderly population with 19 percent of Americans aged 60 and above. That number is expected to grow to 32 percent. Sadly many aging Americans end up in long term care facilities far away from family, and over 65 percent of those residents never receive visitors. Lonely and forgotten, their spirits fade away. Like all of us, they desire to be heard, valued and loved. Their stories are the unwritten history of our nation.
Heart2Heart is on a mission to provide HOPE, to restore PURPOSE, and to share LOVE with the elderly in our communities through visitations from trained volunteers. There are 13,000 elderly residents in over 300 care centers in South Florida. A simple visit brings them such joy and can give them a new lease on life.
They are waiting for someone. Is it you? Will you be the Good Samaritan who takes a moment to stop along this Jericho Road and show some love to a stranger, to return again and make him or her your friend?
“It’s about building sustainable relationships,” explained Blake Silverstrom, executive director of Heart2Heart.
James 1:27 reminds us, “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress” (NLT). That’s why Silverstrom is encouraging churches to adopt a care center in their area and get their congregations involved, loving their neighbors.
“It’s about the church being the church,” he said. “It’s an easy on ramp to get your people involved because it doesn’t require a professional skill set. All have a place here, and it’s so much fun.”
On one visit, Silverstrom said he met a holocaust survivor who had his number tattooed on his arm. “I will always remember that number, and I am moved by their stories,” he added.
Omar Aleman, a Heart2Heart board member, has seen firsthand the impact a simple visit can make. On a recent outing to Pompano Rehab and Health, Aleman said, “the staff asked if I would visit Ms. Jones* who had been there 12 years and she was a little depressed.” It wasn’t long before he had them joking and laughing together. “I told her, when I come back next week, we’re going to go out of the room and I’m going to drive you around a little. So, I came back and took her around the facility, but the impact was on the staff. The staff began to cry because they didn’t think it was possible. She felt safe in her room and had not left it in years.” Aleman discovered his new friend was a Christian woman and used to sing in a choir in New Jersey. “So, I came back another week and we did a Bible study on how God speaks and God’s voice,” he said. Learning others would enjoy the study too, they are now talking about making this a regular event. “When I go in and hug this woman, we have nothing in common except we are both made in God’s image… but this one visit had many ramifications,” he noted.
A team of volunteers from Christ the Rock Community Church in Cooper City has been visiting the Alexander Nininger State Veterans’ Nursing Home in Pembroke Pines every two weeks for the past four years and developed friendships with residents there.
Visits include engaging residents in bingo, playing cards or dominoes, chatting and even a modified game of volleyball. On Friday afternoons, some bring in food for happy hour or play music.
Carol Williams often brought her sons, now ages 20 and 18, with her. “The residents light up when the kids come,” she said, and the boys were in awe that these men lived the history they were studying. Some served in World War II, the Korean War or were Vietnam Veterans.
“One women told us she worked as a spy, assigned to picnic at the beaches while reporting back on the movement of enemy ships,” Williams noted. Her son, Chase, developed a friendship with Dwell Sapp, a resident who served in the Army for 15 years as a cook.
Sapp speaks about Chase as if he’s family. “I love him,” said Sapp. “Chase is very sweet, so generous and kind. He’s ROTC and does all the fancy things with the guns,” he told me.
A recent graduate of West Broward High School, Chase said he learned how to play poker at the nursing home, but most of their conversations centered on sports. Chase is a Packers fan while Mr. Sapp is a Dolphins man.
Benefitting Visitors and Residents
Williams said their involvement with Heart2Heart stemmed from a desire to connect the youth with seniors at their church. She admits there are times when she feels too tired to visit, but goes anyway and always leaves energetic and joyful. “I am reminded of Colossians 3:23: ‘Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people.’ Ultimately, we are there to show them the love of Jesus and that is very rewarding,” she added.
Administrator, Larry Militello, said Heart2Heart volunteers have filled a void at the nursing facility. Because they have received background checks and been trained, Heart2Heart volunteers do things other volunteers can’t. “They visit individual rooms and are here more frequently, so the guys know them by name. There’s also cross generational interaction. These folks don’t get much exposure to youth and it makes a huge difference to them.”
Having grown up visiting nursing homes himself, Militello finds it’s a mutually beneficial relationship.
“There is wisdom in the aged,” points out Blake Silverstrom, executive director of Heart2Heart,
but the reality is that we are doing a poor job of honoring the elderly in our country. They are often marginalized, abandoned, abused or neglected. We talk about the Greatest Generation, but we often don’t treat them that way. It’s a social justice issue.”
People need people, and Debbie McKirahan, a Heart2Heart volunteer who attends Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale, discovered how powerful a caring, listening ear can be. Cherishing close relationship she had with her grandparents, McKirahan developed a patience and love for older folks and began visiting Pompano Health and Rehab once a week.
“When I first met Mr. Smith*, his days and nights were spent alone in his room. With no family or friends in Florida, he had no visitors. Through questions and props, I discovered Mr. Smith’s love of Big Band music, so I found a few CD’s and we gave it a go. Mr. Smith was transformed! His feet began tapping, his legs were dancing, he sang out the tune and his eyes became bright again. His memory may have faded, but he can recall every band, band member and song. Some days his clarity reveals other memories like his service as a submariner in the South Pacific and his sharp-dressing wife, Gloria!
Ever since Mr. Smith’s musical transformation, the two share a cup of tea and biscuits every week, listen to Benny Goodman and tell stories. He left his room to escort her to the Christmas party in December and in January Mr. Smith began attending physical therapy.
“I now see a more engaged man with a greater sense of personal purpose. He has a lifetime of stories to tell and someone who wants to hear them all,” said McKirahan. It gave him hope and something to look forward to. In fact, his transformation was so significant that his physical therapist asked McKirahan how she could get some of her other patients on her visiting schedule.
Alex Dammmueller, a Heart2Heart volunteer who attends Church by the Glades, said, “My goal is to make sure people understand they are not forgotten nor alone in the world and have people who will come to visit and bring a smile.”
She visited East Side Active Living, in Hollywood, on Christmas day and met Steve, a former taxi driver who was having a hard time adjusting to living in an assisted living facility. She discovered Steve hadn’t spoken to his son in years due to a family rift and didn’t know how to reach him. After searching online, she was able to reach the man’s son and put him on the phone. “The son sent me a text message afterward, thanking me. He hadn’t spoken to his dad in a long time and it was a beautiful Christmas present that two souls reconnected. That is the gift of Heart2Heart: providing the opportunity to bring comfort, joy and love to wonderful people who find themselves alone for whatever reason, at a later stage in life,” said Dammmueller.
Seeking Others to Meet the Need
Heart2Heart Outreach is in need of more volunteers, churches and businesses to partner with in order to meet the growing need.
The church can step in and fill this gap, mobilizing an army of volunteers to share the love of Christ. With more than 300 care centers in Broward alone, there is likely a center within 5 miles of each church. With Heart2Heart providing volunteer training and background checks, all that is needed for church participation is a volunteer leader.
Heart2Heart also utilizes a Mobile Serve App that makes it easy for volunteers to log hours, post where they are serving and share compelling stories that celebrate what God is doing on Facebook and Instagram.
To learn more about how you can get involved, visit heart2heartoutreach.org.
*Name changed for confidentiality.
For more articles by Shelly Pond, please visit goodnewsfl.org/author/shelly/