116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — As 8-year-old Kenley Lindstrom looked out the car window on her drives to school last spring, she waved to one person every day.
On the sidewalk the man she saw would wave back as he walked by himself around the block.
“He looked a little lonely,” Kenley said. “He was always by himself.”
So at school each day, she said a little prayer for Jack Stevens, the 72-year old Evergreen Estates I resident. But for Kenley, prayers alone weren’t enough — she wanted to see him smile. So she went a few steps further.
The then second-grader at St. Jude’s School, along with her classmates, made a book — a collection of well wishes, jokes and hand drawn pictures — for Stevens. Kenley’s mom, Abby Tresnak, had it delivered to Evergreen Estates.
Before long, the pair of unlikely acquaintances, who met during one of Stevens’ only interactions with the outside world in the pandemic, became best friends through ice cream outings, a school visit and weekly bingo games together.
They now have corresponding T-shirts: one that says “I know Jack,” and one that says “I am Jack.”
“You can’t find a better example of healing through love.”
With no living relatives besides a half brother, the friendship pursued by a child has made a humble man speechless.
“It’s not every day a person is cared about by a stranger,” Stevens said. In one word, he said the now third-grader has managed to make him feel special at a time when few things can.
“There are still good kids in this world,” he said. “I’m always saying something like ‘Oh, kids these days.’ Now, I’m sure there are good kids because of Kenley. She opened her life to me.”
With a friendship that has blossomed as surely as the flowers Kenley gifted Stevens early on, Evergreen Estates witnessed acts not of charity, but of appreciation and care in a time when many in assisted living and nursing care have experienced unprecedented isolation.
“To see this little girl reach out and care about him was extremely humbling for him,” said Pat Giorgio, president and CEO of Evergreen Estates. “You can’t find a better example of healing through love.”
Their interactions, she said, have had a mushrooming effect on other residents who experienced the same type of loneliness over the pandemic.
As Stevens was unable to carry out his usual acts of caring for others during the pandemic, like baking cookies for the staff, the favor was returned when he least expected it.
“It makes me happy that he’s happy,” Kenley said, adding that Stevens’ smile was what she loved most about their friendship.
“I always tell my kids to be kind and thoughtful of other people because you never know what someone’s situation is,” said Kenley’s mother, Abby Tresnak. “The fact that she actually listened … it actually pulled at my feelers because of how sweet and pure it was coming straight from her.”
Instilling an appreciation for the elderly and teaching children how to care for those in need is a choice parents have to make, Giorgio said.
“Young children absolutely mean the world to older folks. They love to see young people’s smiles,” she said. “I think it’s rather profound for that whole circle of life. As people get older, they’re much more reflective on that.”
What older adults appreciate
For many older adults, it doesn’t take a stranger going out of their way to make them feel loved or appreciated. For some, it’s the small things.
For Harry Berckes, who claims to be the oldest league bowler in Iowa at age 99, it’s some of the little things that make him feel human.
If you’re talking to him, for example, don’t start speaking at a condescendingly loud volume — some voices register with his ears better than others. A thank-you note for the gifts is always welcome for Berckes, too.
“Just because you have the title grandparent doesn’t mean you have to be put aside,” the Cedar Rapids resident said.
With two sons and three grandsons, many who live in the area, he experiences a feeling common with other older adults surveyed by The Gazette: not wanting to be a bother.
Berckes said he often holds back from calling his sons to avoid being a nuisance. Nevertheless, he said his door is always open to visitors and he loves socializing in his bowling leagues. But coming over without an invitation is what makes him feel appreciated.
“The main thing is keeping in contact,” said Hiawatha resident Kathy McDonnell, who stays in touch with nieces, nephews and friends. “I don’t have to initiate a call. They pop in.”
“I don’t like to intrude,” she said. “For the longest time, I hated asking for help.”
Increased isolation during the pandemic
One of the benefits touted in many senior living communities is added socialization. During the pandemic, that benefit went largely unrealized as many of those most susceptible to COVID-19 had to stay separated from friends, family and neighbors as much as possible.
For Right at Home, an home health care service in Cedar Rapids, social isolation has been one of the biggest concerns highlighted by the pandemic for older adults.
“Oftentimes we are a liaison between adult children who don’t live here (and older adults),” said Stephanie Humphries, owner of Right at Home. “We serve as the eyes and ears for aging parents and grandparents.”
As isolation grew unbearable for many, some hired the company to help move their parents out of nursing homes and provide closer care at home, where they could see their parents without looking through a glass window or an iPad.
With the delta variant raising concerns again, Giorgio said assisted living facilities like Evergreen Estates may have to reevaluate how to protect residents without lockdowns reminiscent of 2020.
“You can truly crush the human spirit. I think the lack of human interaction is debilitating for seniors in assisted living,” she said.
How to show you care
For Humphries and her staff at Right at Home, giving care in person can often make caregivers closer to their clients than family members.
“Sometimes caregivers get to know the nuances of a person better than the family members,” she said.
But learning how to make them feel special simply means paying attention to what they like.
“It’s tuning in to what they like. There’s history about them all over the house so it makes it easier to learn about them,” she said.
You don’t have to have a living grandparent this Grandparents Day celebrated on Sunday to show an older adult how much you appreciate them. Here are a few ways to show you care:
- Enjoy dinner together, or arrange their favorite meal to be delivered to them. Humphries said children who live far away are able to give caregivers the best ideas on what treats or meals will resonate with their parents most.
- Take the time to have a conversation.
- Spend time with them reminiscing about their life on the phone. “Take time out of the day and let them know you’ve reserved that time for them,” Humphries said. “Tell them how you feel, what you appreciate about them. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or big.” Simply let them know they’re in your thoughts.
- If far away, schedule a video call.
- Mail a care package with some framed photographs.
- Send a handwritten card or note. Handwriting resonates with many older adults in a way that text messages and emails do not.
- Help them set up, navigate and understand their technology in a time where technology has become more important than ever to stay connected.
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