No matter the frailty or dementia, everyone here has a purpose
On a recent morning, a group of 2-year-olds joined hands and waddled, flock-like, from the Meerkat room on the east side of the St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care to the reading room on the far west side of the building.
Waiting for them there were a couple adults on the other end of the intergenerational spectrum. It took a minute, but soon everyone settled in for some stories.
Paulette Smith, a volunteer, read “Frog Cops.” Spoiler alert. The last line in the book is: “The frog cops lock up the frog with spots.”
Then it was time for Geneva Loveless — age somewhere north of 70, she allowed — to read. And the fairy tale she read pretty much summed up what St. Ann’s is all about.
A grateful fairy rewards a helpful young girl by whispering into her ear the secret to happiness. And so the girl lives all her life in a state of joy. Not until she is very old and still very happy does she share the fairy’s secret:
“She told me that everyone, no matter how secure they seemed, no matter how old or young, rich or poor, had need of me.”
That was the very secret that revealed itself to the center’s founder and president, Sister Edna Lonergan, in the early 1980s.
Lonergan was then the director of rehabilitation for her order, the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, at its health center in St. Francis.
She got the idea to open an adult day care in the basement of the center. It proved to be very popular.
“We had to hire more people,” she said. “They were mostly moms, single moms. So when the schools were closed, I lost all my staff. They had to be home taking care of the children. So I said, ‘Well, bring them in.'”
What happened next was as unexpected as it was perhaps inevitable.
“We took our babies over to our sisters who were the most frail — the most frail — and we put the babies in their arms. A couple of them started to cry. Not the babies. The adults. They looked at that baby in their arms and said, ‘I used to be a really good teacher.’ Or, ‘Can I really hold this baby? Can I rock this baby?'”
The babies had a gift — themselves — and a need to give it.
The adults had a gift — themselves — and a need to give it.
Each gave meaning to the other. They gave each other purpose.
“If I stress nothing else,” Lonergan said, “everybody needs a sense of purpose. Everybody. It doesn’t matter what degree of dementia they have. It doesn’t matter what age they are. What disability they have. Everyone needs a sense of purpose. Everybody.”
In 1999, the St. Ann Center opened its Stein Campus on Milwaukee’s south side. Last year, it opened its Bucyrus Campus, a $21 million facility on what Lonergan said was “two blocks of contaminated soil.”
The 2-year-olds from the Meerkat room are among 100 children, and fairy tale teller Geneva Loveless is among the 90 adults receiving day care services at the Bucyrus campus, which is still under construction.
A dental clinic specifically for people with disabilities will open this summer. Plans also include a state-of-the-art Alzheimer’s care program, an overnight respite care unit and a 500 seat band shell.
Lonergan figures it will take another $3.5 million to finish the place. Then, she says, perhaps she’ll build another.
“I’m a believer that if you put an idea out there, and God wants it to happen, it will hang together.”
Like when she was 3. She remembers standing on the steps of her church, south of Boston, in Braintree, Mass.
She doesn’t remember much else, except the steps and a seemingly very tall nun, dressed as nuns did in those days in a black habit.
“I was in awe,” she said.
“I thought, ‘That’s what I’m going to be when I grow up.’ I didn’t know what she did or anything. But I was in awe, and I knew that’s what I would do.”