By Dave Jolivet, Anchor Editor
FALL RIVER, Mass. — No season other than Christmas can generate such a dichotomy of emotions.
For many, Christmas means gathering with family and friends and expressing the joy of the birth of the Christ Child in a plethora of ways. For many others, they can only dream about such events.
In the Diocese of Fall River the Diocesan Health Facilities Office manages five extended health care facilities, one adult day care facility, and one care manager program for elderly patients.
Through the DHFO agencies, hundreds of area ailing and terminally-ill patients receive rehabilitative or end-of-life care in a Catholic environment which exemplifies Pope Francis’ call to lovingly care for the most vulnerable of God’s family, among which are the sick and the elderly.
Finding oneself in a nursing facility or under the watchful eye of a caregiver can be a traumatic event for those who, at one time in their lives, provided care for others.
That difficult adjustment is only magnified during the Christmas season. Some patients still have the love and support of family and friends, while others have simply outlived their comrades and family. In either case, each of the seven DHFO agencies has a mission of making spirits bright during this holy season.
The staff and management teams embrace it as their Christian duty to make Christmas special for all of their patients, whether they are alone or have other sources of support.
Our Lady’s Haven serves the communities in the Fairhaven area. “We realize that this time of year can be a particularly sad or difficult time for those without family,” administrator Michael Medeiros told The Anchor. “Staff members who wish to participate, ‘adopt’ a resident and provide them with gifts for Christmas. These gifts are handed out at Christmas so they do not feel forgotten.”
Medeiros said the home also provides other activities throughout the season. There is a special Christmas dinner for residents and their families in the dining room; various Christmas shows are performed by local schools, including St. Mary’s Parish in Fairhaven, whose students come to carol and deliver Christmas cards; local entertainers come to help residents celebrate.
Medeiros said that residents are encouraged to participate and assist the staff in decorating the residents’ rooms. Shuttle buses from Our Lady’s Haven also take residents on a journey through the surrounding communities to see the Christmas light decorations.
“And of course, Mr. and Mrs. Santa will be arriving with the help of the Fairhaven Fire Department truck,” added Medeiros.
In Fall River, at the apex of Highland Avenue, sits the massive Catholic Memorial Home. “Our goal throughout the month is to keep residents involved and connected to their community and to also keep them connected to the specialness of the season,” said administrator Thomas F. Healy. “Residents with no family are comforted by their ‘Catholic Memorial Home’ family. Staff always give special attention to those residents who don’t have visitors or whose family cannot be with them during this time of year.”
Healy said each of the residents receives a gift to open on Christmas morning. St. Thomas More Parish in Somerset has a program to bring gifts to the Fall River facility, and members of Espirito Santo Parish in Fall River routinely come to the home during the Christmas season to carol and distribute gifts.
Healy also said that groups, such as the Boy Scouts and other community groups come to carol for the residents. “This is almost a daily occurrence during the Christmas season.”
A Christmas dinner is offered on Christmas day for residents and their families, so they may celebrate the day together. Another activity is a program that specializes in remembering the season with discussion groups of residents talking about their favorite Christmas memories.
The Alzheimer’s units have special Christmas activities, at which family and friends attend, and, “Santa always makes an appearance,” added Healy.
“At Sacred Heart Home in New Bedford, we try to make the Christmas season as homelike as possible for our residents,” administrator Manuel Benevides told The Anchor. “Many residents have family close by, but others have no families or families that live at a distance. We try to relive some of the Christmas customs that they cherished throughout their lives, and involve them in as many activities and programs as possible especially for those who do not get many visitors.”
During the season Sacred Heart Home residents take part in a “trim-a-tree” program, while the staff uses recipes given by residents to make delicious treats such as graham cracker strawberry pie, cream cheese brownies and Christmas cookies. “The aromas are awesome,” added Benevides.
Area parishes help bring the joy of Christmas to the home. St. John the Baptist Parish in Westport and St. Mary’s Parish in New Bedford sponsor and take part in various concerts and activities for residents.
Weather permitting, some residents travel to La Salette Shrine in Attleboro, or through New Bedford neighborhoods to view the Christmas light displays.
“This year, the Christmas party will be held on December 23,” added Benevides. “We have a Christmas Eve pizza party in our auditorium along with a New Year’s party the following week also in our auditorium. We make it a point to show classic holiday movies to our residents in the units and activity rooms. We also have carolers from various schools and organizations throughout the month.”
Madonna Manor services the residents in the Attleboro area of the diocese. Administrator Mary-Ellen Murphy told The Anchor, “At Madonna Manor we strive to live the Christmas Spirit all year long through the loving, compassionate care we provide for our residents every day.”
Some of the manor’s Christmas activities include a Christmas dinner for family and residents on Christmas Day and a trip to La Salette Shrine to view the lights.
Children from St. Mary-Sacred Heart School in North Attleboro perform a Christmas pageant for the residents, including a Christmas concert. Following the pageant the students present each of the residents with a gift from the home.
The bell-ringers group from St. John the Evangelist School in Attleboro performs for the residents, as do various local entertainers who bring Christmas cheer and warmth to the manor.
Marian Manor, an extended care facility, and Bethany House, an adult day health care facility, service the Taunton area.
The manor has been a host site for the city of Taunton’s “Lights On” celebration for many years. During the Christmas season the resident glee club sings for the public at the manor during the event.
Local entertainer Mike Higgins performs for the residents, among the many other activities taking place there including: a Snowflake Bazaar; a La Salette trip; Girl Scout and Brownie caroling events; a visit from the St. Anthony’s Parish (Taunton) Youth Group to sing carols; and a Christmas party and social.
“We have a very active season of events here at Marian Manor and Bethany House,” said manor administrator, Ray McAndrews. “In addition, our residents each receive a gift from the facility and Santa makes the delivery at a house-wide party several days before Christmas.”
Phoebe Worcester is the director of Bethany House. She told The Anchor, “Our ‘clients’ live in their homes and come in to spend the day here (medically supervised). We provide activities, crafts, meals, day trips, etc. We are open year round to provide a caring environment and respite for their caregivers. Bethany House is a ‘house.’ We have a living room with a fireplace, a kitchen for cooking groups, a large dining room that functions as our large group meeting area, a library and a quiet room. Most of our clients are poor, some living in a group home setting, adult foster care and/or with their children. I usually tell potential clients/families we are ‘family’ here. I also tell them that our all women staff are ‘angels sent down from Heaven,’ all kind, caring, respectful with beautiful souls.”
These “angels” help the clients bake cookies, have Christmas sing-alongs, and put up Nativity scenes and Christmas trees. “We wear ‘ugly sweaters,’ watch a few Christmas movies and spend one-on-one time with clients who need it,” added Worcester. “On December 19, Santa and Mrs. Claus will come and hand out to each individual a present that they asked for in October. Their names are picked from a Christmas tree and the gifts are wrapped and coordinated through Home Instead. It is a very emotional day for the staff, to see clients who are mentally/physically-challenged who smile from ear to ear when they open their gift that was picked out just for them. I’m sure for many of them, it is their only gift. We have eggnog punch, baked-by-client cookies, etc. Sister Paulina comes over twice weekly to give Communion and we also provide Bible study for non-Catholics.”
Joan Jakuboski, RN, BSN, is the care manager for Elders First based in Fall River. “Those of us who work in the Elders First program are registered nurses and we visit elders in their homes on a weekly or biweekly basis,” she explained. “We spend much of our time with medication management and work with the elder’s physicians to ensure that their medical needs are being met. Since we see the clients on a regular basis, we get to know them well and know their families as well. There are those who have no family and my staff and I make certain that they have some gifts and let them know that someone cares about them especially during this time of year. We always let them know that we are only a phone call away, if there is anything that they need.”
Being away from home at Christmas tends to magnify the sadness and loneliness of many area residents. But also magnified are the simple acts of love, kindness, and Christmas joy provided by the many fine folks who work and volunteer at the diocese’s extended health care facilities.