September 25, 2015

‘Beautiful things happen here’: A Caring Place celebrates 25 years of providing compassion, care for older adults

The joy is contagious as Madeline Bonds, left, and Berton Graves share a memory and a laugh with their mother, Dorothy Porter, during time together at A Caring Place. The Catholic Charities Indianapolis program is marking its 25th year of providing day care services for older adults, and a daily respite for their caregivers. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

The joy is contagious as Madeline Bonds, left, and Berton Graves share a memory and a laugh with their mother, Dorothy Porter, during time together at A Caring Place. The Catholic Charities Indianapolis program is marking its 25th year of providing day care services for older adults, and a daily respite for their caregivers. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

If one moment could capture the depth and the history of the love between an aging parent and her grown children, this could be the one.

In this moment, 87-year-old Dorothy Porter sits between the oldest of her four children, Madeline Bonds, and her youngest child, Berton Graves. And the three of them are laughing with such pure joy as they remember how Berton—the baby of the family—never got in trouble with his mother when he did something wrong as a child, and he still never does.

It’s a moment to savor for Madeline and Berton, a moment when the light of life shines in the eyes of their mother, who suffers from moderate-to-late-stage dementia.

As their laughter turns into satisfied smiles, Madeline leans forward and gets emotional as she says, “I saw her dying before my eyes, doing nothing. Now, she always says she has a good day.”

Then she gives thanks to the place that she believes is responsible for her mother’s good days—A Caring Place, the Catholic Charities Indianapolis program that is celebrating its 25th year of providing day care services for older adults, and a daily respite for their caregivers.

“This place has been truly a blessing for both of us,” says Madeline, her mom’s primary caregiver who also has a full-time job. “Her doctor is surprised she’s not in a nursing home by now. He tells me I’m doing a great job with her, but I tell him I couldn’t do it without A Caring Place.

“She’s here seven to eight hours a day for five days a week, and they give her so much love and care. And it gives me time for myself. I thought I was kicking her to the curb if I did this, but I’ve learned how important it is for me, too, as a caregiver.”

‘That’s when it’s worth it all’

That moment of joy shared by Dorothy and her two children touched the heart of Amy Sczesny, now in her fourth year as the director of A Caring Place. It’s the kind of moment she gets to experience often.

“We had this one little lady in the later stages of dementia,” recalls Sczesny, a social worker who has dedicated 25 years to the care of elderly adults. “She rarely talked, but she took a liking to me. One day, her son came to pick her up. I told her, ‘Let me walk with you to see your son.’ She stood up and gave me a kiss on the cheek. It’s the little gifts they still have to offer. We can receive them if we take the time.”

Her smile widens as she adds, “The participants are great. I always say, ‘It doesn’t make any difference how confused they are. If you work with them and get to know them, you’ll find there are things that connect with them, that bring them back into our world.’ That’s when it’s worth it all.”

To tap into those moments, the staff of A Caring Place creates “Life Story” booklets for each of the participants. They collect photos and information about the person’s past, including family details, favorite desserts, past employment and longtime interests.

In Dorothy’s “Life Story,” the details include her love of chocolate, her 50 years of teaching Sunday School, her joy of singing in her church choir, her memories of traveling to Mexico, California and New Orleans, and the fact that even though she didn’t graduate from high school she made sure all of her four children graduated from college.

“Being here gets her out of her solitude,” Berton says. “She’s not just able to sit back. She’s more of a participant instead of an observer. She has physical and mental activities here. It gives you peace of mind knowing she’s well taken care of.”

‘Beautiful things happen here’

While each person has a “Life Story” at A Caring Place, so does the facility.

Housed in a few rooms at Fairview Presbyterian Church at 46th Street and Capitol Avenue in Indianapolis, A Caring Place began in 1990 as a collaboration of four congregations in the area at the time—St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, University Park Christian Church, Faith United Christian Church and Fairview. Now, it’s a program of Catholic Charities Indianapolis.

“We joke that we’re a Catholic organization in a Presbyterian church, and the majority of our clients are Southern Baptists,” Sczesny says with a laugh. “We’re very ecumenical.”

She also says they’re indebted to the first leader of A Caring Place, Providence Sister Susan Dinnin, who created a foundation of compassion and care from her start in 1990 to her retirement in 2012.

“Sister Susan showed her love to the folks every day,” Sczesny says. “We wouldn’t be where we are without her foundation. We can take time with our clients. We don’t have to bill every 15 minutes. We provide the care that’s needed. We learned that from Sister Susan and her staff, and it’s carried over.”

Sister Susan downplays her involvement, preferring to focus on the difference A Caring Place has made in 25 years.

“They will always be special years in my life,” says Sister Susan, whose “retirement” includes working as a caregiver one-on-one in the homes of the elderly. “I just reflect on the many people who come through those doors, and I think of how all those lives have been enriched by these people coming together. I know I’m a better person because of the relationships that were formed there.”

Her memories of A Caring Place are tied to stories of those relationships.

One of her favorite stories involves a woman named Ina who wasn’t convinced that A Caring Place was the right setting for her. Ina looked at the other adults there—a mix of whites, blacks and Hispanics—and realized that interacting with people of different races had rarely been a part of her life.

“She had her concerns,” Sister Susan recalls about Ina, a Caucasian. “But she became fast friends with a woman of the African-American community, Lucille. I could talk to you for an hour about them, but I’ll just tell you this. At the death of Ina’s only child, there was only one person she requested to sit with her in the front row of the church. That was Lucille. That spoke volumes to me about what beautiful things happen here, and what relationships are formed here.”

The magic of caring

During her leadership, Sister Susan established fundraising efforts to provide outings for the adults, including trips to Indianapolis Indians baseball games, Indiana Fever basketball games, and Dairy Queen and Steak n’ Shake.

“We also use the money to help people enter the program while they’re waiting for their funding source to be approved,” Sczesny says. “That’s another part of Sister’s legacy.”

Hoping to supplement that legacy, Sczesny surprised Sister Susan during the “Magic of Caring” 25th anniversary celebration of A Caring Place on Sept. 18. Sczesny told Sister Susan that she was creating a “Bucket Wish” in her honor that would help the facility recognize and celebrate significant moments in the adults’ lives.

“As an example, we have a couple here who has been married for 65 plus years, but they couldn’t celebrate because she’s going through treatments for cancer and he’s been hospitalized several times,” Sczesny says. “We’re going to have an anniversary party with a wedding cake, punch and a gift. The money for that will come from the Bucket Wish.”

The 25 years of A Caring Place represent the fulfillment of a wish for many adults, their caregivers and the staff there.

“Most of our clients are at the poverty level,” Sczesny says. “We provide care, but we also buy shoes for them if we see they are worn out. Sometimes, we even provide clothes and underclothes. But we give them as bingo prizes because they have a lot of pride. And they just think it’s wonderful.

“It’s like one of the women who comes here. Every morning, we ask her, ‘How are you doing today, Mary?’ She grins and says, ‘I’m blessed. I love it here.’

“That’s the way we all feel.” †

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