Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Hurricane’s Distress Touches Seniors, Who Respond

By DENISE HAINS, Special Contributor | Published October 20, 2005

Voices are a funny thing. Sometimes it’s not what is said, but rather what is felt, that sends up an immediate alarm. The quiet tones of my mom’s quivering words echoed loudly to me that something was wrong.

“Are you all right?” I asked. Her response was slow and deliberate. “I’m OK, but have you seen the news about the hurricane? Isn’t it awful?” Suddenly I longed for my arms to stretch magically from Atlanta to Alexandria, Va., and hug Mom and Dad.

For days I had been mesmerized in Atlanta by Hurricane Katrina news broadcasts. I gathered items for friends who were housing evacuated family members, advised people to talk about the tragedy with their young, and prayed for all. However, it was not until I heard the quiver in Mom’s small voice that my heart missed a beat and melted. I realized that I had never spoken to Mom or Dad about the unfolding storm stories.

Why did I avoid the topic? Was I just busy or did I find it too painful a reminder of the vulnerability of aging and illness? Perhaps I unknowingly assumed my parents could handle anything and everything. They had faced many hardships in their life with grit and determination. Was this different?

The fear-filled tones in Mom’s voice suggested, “If people are neglected in New Orleans, could it also happen to me?” Suddenly I glimpsed the pain of this disaster from the perspective of someone older and in a wheelchair. Wouldn’t I feel frightened and uneasy in her circumstances? At that moment, Mom and I talked honestly about my own anger over the natural disaster and the emergency evacuation situation.

I have spent my last four years as a caregiver traveling between Virginia, where my parents live, and my home in Atlanta. Over this time I have come to know and respect many of the staff at Sunrise Senior Living of Alexandria, as well as Mom’s fellow residents. I love to hear the life stories of her friends and to watch them beam during visits from anyone. Planned activities or playful times shared with caring staff and family are precious.

These very people had also been watching the inescapable sad news coverage. They too were concerned and uneasy about stories of people abandoned with no water or food in a place so far away. It wasn’t right, but what could be done?

I just hate it when the “Spirit” nags at my heart and calls me to action, don’t you? What was clear to me was Mom and her friends, like most of the nation, longed to “do” something in support of the message that life is precious and they cared. Mom told me she wished she could give other senior evacuees nightgowns to protect them from the storm aftermath. Mom set the vision … I provided the legwork.

With a few phone calls to the Sunrise staff, Mom and I birthed an idea for a “Helping Hands” service project and I was en route from Georgia to Virginia where we would assemble “Care Bags” for displaced seniors. We could do this!

The residents decided on the contents; the staff arranged the meeting space and spread the word of our plans to other residents and families. I gathered the core materials at stops along the highway. Our special bags would be filled with pajamas, blankets, socks, chapstick, baseball caps, toothbrushes, toiletries, candy and other donated treasures. Each bag would be hand decorated by us and adorned with the message “We care.”

As our group of “Helping Hands” began our task, I could see determination on their faces. Several children eagerly joined the assembly line beside their grandmother. One of our older helpers had worked for the Red Cross in her younger years. Tears filled my eyes as I glimpsed her small hand purposefully reach for the red marker. Slowly she began by drawing a red cross prominently on her bag. Even those with limited hand-muscle control and/or mental alertness focused hard to decorate their bags with whatever design they could create. Staff, residents and family were joined in a common purpose. All left proud to bring a touch of love into a scary world far away.

As involved as I am in Mom’s care, even I had forgotten to talk about the tragedies of the hurricane with her. As parents we understand the need to talk through tragedy with our children; but do we, as daughters and sons, understand the vital importance of taking the same action with our aging parents? It is painful for me to grasp the reality that my mother, like the hurricane victims, might also feel forgotten, disposable and helpless. It was not the spoken word, but rather the quiver in Mom’s voice that caused me to pause and jolted me out of my comfort zone. From one little quiver came the opportunity for healing and growth for many, including me.

Making a difference in the world gives each of us purpose, pride and meaning. My own sense of social justice, ministry and mission was nurtured by my parents who were generous with their time, talent and treasure. Today their mobility and health is challenged, but their desire to make a difference and continue spreading grace and love still surges strongly. I strongly respect their life contributions from the past and look forward to the grace they will spread in the future.

This was not the first project for our Sunrise “Helping Hands” group, but perhaps its most vital. In the past I have heard such pride in the voices of our senior helpers as they tell their family members about assembling gift bags for soldiers in Iraq, cookies for fireman after 9/11 and now “Care Bags” for other seniors displaced by the hurricane. However, this time I also heard relief that they did something to help others like themselves.

Through the generosity of St. Ann’s Church in Marietta (who allowed us to piggyback our gifts with their three-ton shipment of paper, household and sanitary donations) and the dedication of Angel Flight at Peachtree DeKalb Airport, our humble Helping Hand Care Bags continued on their important journey to seniors in need in Louisiana.

I am humbled by the life stories of my older friends and saddened by their sense of isolation. Some of their feelings and fears are a natural consequence of aging and losing mobility … others are not. It is important for seniors to know we care and will not abandon them. Dialogue calms their fear, and a gentle touch reminds them they are still loved. Call or reach out to seniors and those in need of extra care in your life today!

Voices are a funny thing … God’s grace and comfort often come not in knowing the right words to say, but rather in reaching out and just saying, “Hello, I care.”

Denise Hains is a married mother of three, a caregiver for her parents, a speaker and a writer. She has served in church ministry for over 30 years and earned her master’s in pastoral ecclesial studies from Loyola University of New Orleans.