Visiting Shut-Ins, Who Does That Anymore?

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Growing up I was told many things, but among those that stand out to this day,

Say 'thank you for the food' before leaving the dinner table, wash your hands, never use the phrase 'shut up,' and be part of family Sundays that included visiting "The Chateau," a nursing home in Modesto,  CA every month.

From the age of 8 through my young teenage years, our family of eight would pile into our station wagon after church and once a month we'd spend the afternoon visiting shut-ins. My mom would play the piano and we'd sing, we would go from room to room and shake people's hands and we would just sit, while my dad talked to any number of people who lit up every time we came in. We had no family members at the nursing home, we were part of a community who believed that bonding over the generations mattered.

When I graduated from college, got married and had children, I recalled many of the rules I grew up with, but the idea of visiting a nursing home simply didn't cross my mind. I had so many excuses:  way too busy, no family at a facility, it might make me sad, it might make my kids sad, so many strange smells, you name it.  But the truth is, I don't ever remember being sad as a kid when I went to the Chateau.  Instead, I clearly remember feeling better.  There's something about bringing a smile to a total stranger that lifts your mood.  Certainly I had it better than any of them.

And now I learn the harsh statistic that more than 60 percent of nursing home residents have no one who comes to visit them.  No one.  There are many reasons:

  • No living close relative
  • Children die first
  • No children
  • No connection with family

Until Linda Hollaway's grandmother, Bessie, was put in a Texas nursing home because of the progression of Alzheimer's, Linda never gave a second thought to how people thrived, were treated or received visits at those facilities.

"As I made my monthly drive from Denver to Texas to visit her in the nursing home, I became consumed by anger, because of what she had to endure.  Not only was she going through the horrid stages of the disease, she was suffering needless pain from neglect, drug abuse, and physical and emotional abuse that she received in the nursing home."

And because she lived in Denver, and there were few family members near her grandmother, nearly no one came to see her. Holloway was so moved by her grandmother's plight that she vowed to make a change.

imgres20 years ago, she and co-founders Sharron Brandrup and Marge Utne established what is now known as Bessie's Hope  in Denver.   They began taking groups of children to visit nursing home residents and when they saw how beneficial it was to both groups, they knew they were on to something.

"Seeing the need and seeing the magic that happens with elders and kids, this relationship-driven dream came true," says Holloway.  Everyone who goes through the Bessie's Hope method receives a one-hour orientation that provides the education and communication tools to deal with all sorts of elders, including those with Alzheimer's.

Holloway discovered the immediate contact makes people feel valuable.  "We found the at-risk youth need the same thing the elders need, to be valued and have a purpose." So Bessie's Hope works with residential centers to provide this important link.

For most of us, deciding to step into a nursing home isn't at the top of our list.  What would we say, how will we be received, what do we do? But if you're looking for a different way to give of yourself this holiday season, this may be an option that is a total win/win.

There area four areas where Bessie's Hope gives you the opportunity to put a dent in the dearth of visitors to nursing homes.

1.  Youth and Elders

Bessie’s Hope Youth and Elders Program coordinates with teachers to blend the nursing home experience into the schools’ curriculum.  Activities focus on volunteers pariticipating "with", not doing things "to" or "for" their grand-partners.

2.  Family and Elders

Bessie's Hope Family and Elders Program matches individuals and families who become companions, advocates, and extended families for nursing home/assisted living elders who have little or no visitation.

3.  Community and Elders

Bessie's Hope invites your employees to experience the perfect community service and team-building project.  They encourage your group to commit to ongoing visits, once a month, every other month or once a quarter. They provide training and activities to facilitate these ongoing visits.

4.  Dreams Can Come True

Bessie's Hope believes it's never too late to dream, and never to late to have a dream fulfilled.  Whether it's dancing lessons, a visit from a professional athlete, skiing, or going to the symphony, Bessie's Hope is fulfilling dreams for nursing home residents.


If you're looking for a different way to celebrate the holiday season that requires only the investment of your, your family's, or your workplace's time, Bessie's Hope would love to hear from you.  The Legacy Project says establishing connections for elders and their community is rewarding for young and old.

While a single visit to a nursing home is a valuable experience for children and will brighten the day for older adults, an ongoing visitation program is most effective. Said one staff member in a nursing home, "We don't want it to be 'let's go see the old people' just like it's a trip to the Statue of Liberty." An ongoing series of visits allows the understanding and trust to develop which are essential for a real connection between people of any age.

Holloway admits, "if it hadn't been for my grandmother, and her experience in a nursing home, I wouldn't have done anything."

And as Colorado Gives Day approaches on Tuesday, if you don't have a local charity in mind, how about Bessie's Hope?

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Lois’ Living Through It blogs are posted on Mondays and Thursdays.  Join her Monday mornings around 8:45am on Good Day Colorado.