A Heart to Serve

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By Ken Gartin
Rockport Healthcare Services

It’s no secret that non-profits and community organizations always need dedicated volunteers. Unfortunately, residents of care communities are rarely tapped to provide that much-needed service.

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,” she says. “I love volunteering because it makes me feel like a whole human being.”

In 2016, Rockport Healthcare Services was the first organization to involve every nursing home and assisted living community we 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

Mike Wasserman, MD, CMD, a nationally recognized geriatrician and CEO for Rockport Healthcare Services, says that 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.”

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 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 hand-outs – 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.

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.”


What’s next? We’re going to the dogs!

With the success of Community Meals, A Heart to Serve volunteers are taking on a new challenge – helping homeless senior dogs find their forever homes. Through the brand-new Senior K9 Adoption program, residents provide loving foster care to senior dogs from a local animal shelter. Taking over the fostering of a dog helps the animal shelters make room for another homeless pet, and the nursing home becomes the dog’s new temporary home. The plan is that residents will interact with the foster dog daily by training, feeding, and walking “Fido.” In addition, almost as soon as Fido arrives at the nursing home, residents serving as adoption coordinators will start marketing the senior dog for adoption. Once Fido is adopted, another senior dog will join the nursing home and be given the same attention and compassion.


Interested in bringing service to your care community?

There are so many ways to learn more!

·     Join the Rockport Healthcare Services team at the 2018 Pioneer Network conference!

·     Watch this video https://ahearttoserve.org/video/?v=bakersfield

·     Visit us online at https://ahearttoserve.org/ and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter!

·     Email Matthew Lysobey at mlysobey@rockporthc.com