December 7, 2018

Bloomington ministry to elderly ensures they are ‘never alone’

In Bloomington, a few of the Never Alone: Ministry to the Elderly (NAME) volunteers of St. Paul Catholic Center’s campus ministry, serving the students of Indiana University, pose outside of the Golden LivingCenter where they visit the elderly once a week. The volunteers are, front row: Zoey Fields, left, Corinne Maue, Rileigh Johnson and Yahilin Vera; back row: Matthew Neuman, left, and Matthew Peisen. (Submitted photo)

In Bloomington, a few of the Never Alone: Ministry to the Elderly (NAME) volunteers of St. Paul Catholic Center’s campus ministry, serving the students of Indiana University, pose outside of the Golden LivingCenter where they visit the elderly once a week. The volunteers are, front row: Zoey Fields, left, Corinne Maue, Rileigh Johnson and Yahilin Vera; back row: Matthew Neuman, left, and Matthew Peisen. (Submitted photo)

By Natalie Hoefer

BLOOMINGTON—Indiana University senior Nathalie Plum looks forward to visiting her friend Melia Davis.

“We talk about everything under the sun,” she says.

“But I have to watch out for her—I brought my boyfriend once and she tried to steal him,” she adds with a pout.

Davis giggles. The World Wrestling Entertainment posters adorning her walls are another sign of the 86-year-old woman’s youthful, playful spirit.

“I try to rub some of my orneriness off on her,” she says with a grin toward the petite, blonde 20-year-old Catholic.

The unlikely pair’s fondness for each other began earlier this year through Never Alone: Ministry to the Elderly (NAME), a program of St. Paul Catholic Center’s campus ministry in Bloomington. Through the outreach, Catholic students studying at Indiana University make weekly visits to residents at nearby Golden LivingCenter nursing home who have few, if any, visitors.

Plum’s and Davis’ closeness is just what Dominican Father Joseph Minuth, associate pastor of St. Paul, says he had in mind when he founded NAME: a ministry where college students “don’t just go to do good work, but to have a relationship with people” in the nursing home.

‘Most have visitors weekly or monthly’

Father Joseph founded NAME several years ago at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. Ironically, the ministry branched out of a program he started to help those on the opposite end of the age spectrum: Mentoring At-Risk Kids, or MARK.

“The whole idea was for students who might not be interested in going to church but might like service work,” he explains. “It was a way to minister to them on how to live out their spirituality and charism, and to get to know students active in the Church.

“At one point, a girl discerning a call to serve as a Little Sisters of the Poor [order, which ministers to the poor elderly] said, ‘Why don’t you do the same thing for the elderly?’ And that’s how NAME got started.”

When he began serving at St. Paul two years ago, Father Joseph started MARK first, then started developing NAME last fall. The ministry launched in January.

Father Joseph says the model is “easy to reproduce.” Three days a week, different groups visit the retirement center “so students find the time that works for them,” he explains. Each day has a group leader to coordinate logistics and encourage volunteers’ participation and faith.

The ministry highlights the Church’s emphasis on service, he adds, noting that the Golden LivingCenter staff “appreciates that we’re there consistently, not just at Christmas for caroling and gone the rest of the year.”

Alexandra Makris, campus ministry intern for St. Paul, notes that such appreciation stems from the low number of visitors most residents receive.

“After a full year of doing this ministry at this particular nursing home, my experiences point to the fact that most of the people at this center do not receive regular visitors,” says Makris, the current NAME coordinator. “The more connected ones will get family members coming in sometimes daily, but most residents only have visitors weekly or monthly.

“Because of that, we do not assign students to residents, and we encourage them to cultivate relationships but also to be open to the needs of the residents they don’t visit with weekly. … It’s beautiful to see how God is opening their hearts to seeing the needs of people around them.”

Makris notes that, while the students “can’t be everywhere with everyone, they can be present to one or two people and make a big difference in their day.”

It’s the building of these relationships and the desire for ongoing service that are the “greatest fruits of the ministry,” says Father Joseph.

“That’s what keeps the students coming back. It’s not just service, but a friendship. It’s not just ‘I’m going to the retirement center,’ but ‘I’m going to see Doris.’ ”

‘We just sit here and we talk’

Plum can relate to the idea of the ministry moving from service to relationship.

“Our connection is such a gift,” she says of her relationship with Davis. “Sometimes it can feel like a task beforehand because of my schedule, but I always feel better afterward. Our conversation here is so much more important than anything I have going on.

“Coming here is therapy itself. We laugh a lot.”

As she talks, Davis’ roommate wheels her chair forward and peeks around the curtain that divides the shared room. Plum waves and gives her a smile. The older woman, who is nearly deaf, breaks into an ear-to-ear grin, her face lighting up the room.

“You can joke about a lot of things, but respect for every life is serious,” Plum says, giving the still-smiling woman another wave.

Davis sets aside her joking and playful attitude when asked to comment on her feelings about Plum’s visits.

“Nathalie is just wonderful,” she says of the Cincinnati native. “I just love her to death. Me and my daughter were talking. I said, ‘Today is Friday!’ She said, ‘That’s right, you get visitors, don’t you?’ I told her we shoot the breeze about everything. It’s never anything special. We just sit here and we talk.”

For all their simplicity, Plum says the relationships are long-lasting. She points to a letter Davis received from a NAME volunteer who visited her last spring before graduating. And Plum tells of a woman she used to visit who moved to a different nursing home.

“I ran into her at Goodwill the other day,” she says. “She gave me her number so I can call her. That was a little divine intervention that I went to Goodwill that day. I definitely want to stay in touch with her.”

‘I’ve learned to see Christ in them’

While Plum spends most of her time with Davis, she talks to “random people” on her way to Davis’ room. Fellow NAME volunteer Matthew Neuman says he does the same on his way to visit Doris.

“I visit her every Monday,” says the college senior whose home parish is St. Mary (Immaculate Conception) in Rushville. “I’ve been visiting her for a year. Sometimes she still forgets my name, but that’s OK. You just roll with the punches.”

Neuman also visits residents in the facility’s Alzheimer’s unit, where “you meet all kinds,” he says.

“One guy believes he is a world-renowned author, but he isn’t,” he says. “This other guy claims he is a world-renowned musician. I checked with the nurse, and it really is true! He’s actually a really interesting person.”

His experience visiting residents in the Alzheimer’s unit proved beneficial to another very special senior outside of Golden LivingCenter, and to Neuman as well.

“I always struggled to connect with my grandma [with Alzheimer’s] because she always thought I was my grandpa,” he shares.

But after visiting with residents in the Alzheimer’s unit last semester, “I had a better relationship with my grandma before she died this summer,” he says. “I was able to just hold her hand and let her ramble. It wasn’t disconcerting anymore when she forgot my name.”

Neuman admits that conversation with some residents can be difficult, or their attitudes can seem “bitter.” But in such cases, he says, compassion is the rule.

“You meet people who had a lot of joy, but also a lot of pain, and they spend their time thinking about that,” he says. “You need to just sit there and listen. You need to say, ‘That must have been so hard for you. I’m sorry you had to go through that.’ They appreciate having someone to tell their stories to.

“Sometimes it’s difficult,” he admits.

Still, he knows the value of taking the time to visit the elderly who others might have forgotten.

“I’ve learned to see Christ in them and in others.”

(For more information on NAME, contact St. Paul Catholic Center campus ministry intern Alexandra Makris at 812-339-5561 or


Related: Serving seniors and seniors serving in central and southern Indiana

Local site Links: