Haven on Earth

California church center a ‘godsend’ for community’s elderly
May 31, 2005

Beverly Stoops likes the senior citizen program at St. Paul’s Church, Barstow, Calif., so much that she stayed to participate instead of just dropping off her 92-year-old father-in-law, Ralph.

“It’s a godsend. Otherwise he’d just sit home and watch TV,” said Stoops, joining the circle of a dozen seniors, family members and center staff, singing, “That’s the story of, that’s the glory of love …”

It was the first day at Elder Haven Senior Day Care Center for Lucille Cruz, 88, who kept time by tapping on her walker as she sang along to Hello Dolly, On Moonlight Bay, Up a Lazy River and If You Knew Susie Like I Know Susie.

And that was just a warm-up.

Next up was a session of chair Tai Chi, with volunteer instructor Rose Niemann leading the circle of participants, while still seated, in a series of stretching and breathing exercises.

Participating twice weekly in such activities has given 90-year-old Martha Bell increased range of motion and improved memory, said her son, Bill Harmon, 68, a local chiropractor and St. Paul’s junior warden.

“She tends to be very forgetful. But after coming here for just a month, she recognizes everyone and remembers the activities and the space. This alone has helped her memory retention,” said Harmon, who is caregiver to his mother from November through May.

A collaborative effort

For participating seniors, the center represents the difference between being “home alone in the recliner with the remote control in hand” and activity in a loving community, said the Rev. Lili Bush, St. Paul’s vicar.

Elder Haven, a collaborative effort between the church and the Mojave Valley Volunteer Hospice, opened in October 2004. It provides free transportation, senior activities and a hot meal two days a week to socially isolated seniors. Eventually, the goal is to expand from its current eight clients to 15, offering two different sessions four days weekly, said Donna Zeller, hospice volunteer coordinator.

The idea for the center grew out of her hospice home visits to elderly couples, Zeller said. Often, if one was ill or disabled, it meant both were homebound.

“We’d have requests for volunteers in the home, so seniors could get out and run errands,” Zeller recalled. “We decided that other communities had senior day care centers, and we needed one. We’ve had a big response and a lot of community support.” It took about a year of planning, fund raising and coordination, along with help from the local community and support from such diocesan congregational development programs as Leadership Academy for New Directions and Natural Church Development, Bush added.

“LAND was critical to development of the center,” Bush recalled. “It gave us tools to focus, gospel-based discipleship, a process of hearing the gospel in our lives that was amazing.”

“LAND asked each of us to develop a project, and when we sat down and started talking about it, we came up with a senior day care center, developed in relationship with the hospice,” added Harmon, president of the hospice board.

One funding source was a Bishops’ Initiative Grant from the diocese. A segment on the center was part of a video about BIG’s program shown at Diocesan Convention in December.

Need will grow

As the population ages nationally and locally — about 25 percent of Barstow residents are low-income seniors — the need for such centers and for caregiver relief will escalate, he said.

“It has been found that elder abuse goes up proportionally to the lack of availability of caregiver relief,” he said. “Where there is no caregiver relief, elder abuse remains high.” Elder Haven also gives other seniors, like Lois Keenan, an opportunity to be of service. “Today I helped the participants with making bookmarks. I do whatever’s needed,” said Keenan, as she wrapped silverware in pink napkins in preparation for lunch.

“It’s extremely satisfying for me. I like to stay busy,” said Keenan, also a hospice volunteer. “I’m as old as — even older than — some of the participants. If I just sat at home, I’d be in worse shape than they are, I could be next on the list.”

The Hinkley Senior Center provides the hot meals; volunteers deliver them. Beverly Stoops said Elder Haven has made a huge difference in her father-in-law’s life. For one thing, it gets him out of the house.

“We might have been the first ones to apply for the program,” she said. “It gives him something else to think about besides the fact that his wife of 50-plus years went into a nursing home four years ago and is slipping away from him. “At one point, he was actually talking about doing himself in. He doesn’t say that anymore. Today, he was singing.” And smiling.

Stoops settled in at the table as volunteers placed a hot meal of liver and onions, corn, mashed potatoes and gravy, and apricots before him.

“I really like it here,” he said, “This is my favorite part.”