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Reaching Out to the Elderly

Air Date 11/25/2015

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Diane Doering and Kay Owen-Larson offer practical suggestions for how your family can help alleviate the loneliness experienced by many residents of elderly care facilities, and share the love of Christ with senior citizens who are often overlooked and forgotten about by society.

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Episode Transcript


John Fuller: There's a mission field near you with lonely, often forgotten people and they're living out their final days in a nursing home or a senior center and they are longing to be loved. Well, here's how one woman decided to make a difference in their lives.


Diane Doering: And we try to connect on that heart level, that emotional level, speaking directly to what it is they're needing to hear to encourage their hearts.

And then, always with a message of how much God loves them, right at their point of need, right where He finds them today, no matter where they came from, no matter what they've been through, no matter what their relationship has been in the past with Him, He's there, and He loves them.

End of Teaser

John: This is "Focus on the Family" with your host, Jim Daly. I'm John Fuller and we're gonna be talking today about sharing the love of Christ with the elderly. And Jim, this is, I think something that's pretty doable for every one of our listeners.

Jim Daly: It is, and John, this is something that is so important. We look at life. We talk about the sanctity of human life, and we concentrate a lot on the preborn, rightfully so, because their entire life is in front of them.

But so often, we neglect or fail to think about those that are in the later stages of life. And you know, we need to remember that there is so much that we can do to be a friend there and we're gonna talk about that today.

John: And in the studio with us, we have Diane Doering. She's the director of Care Facility Outreach for Friends of the Forgotten. That's a ministry based in Omaha, Nebraska, and we also have Kay Owen-Larson. She's founder and president of Crossroads USA Ministry, headquartered here in Colorado Springs.


Jim: Let me welcome both of you to "Focus."

Kay Owen-Larson: Thank you very much.

Diane: Pleasure to be here.

Jim: Kay, in fact, you for disclosure purposes, used to be here at Focus. You were a Focus team member.

Kay: Yes, for seven years.

Jim: Seven years, and now you're doin' your own thing and what the Lord has directed you to do. And Kay, you really started for Jean and myself and the boys, you kind of awakened us to this whole area. Patty Watkins, my assistant, she works with you, and I think three or four times now, we've been able to give away Christmas gifts at homes around Colorado Springs. How many people do you impact every year?

Kay: Oh, we impact probably about three or 4,000 people.

Jim: Yeah and how do you do that?

Kay: That's just here in the Springs.

Jim: Right.

Kay: We have chaplains in about seven other states and across the nation that are working with the elderly.

Jim: Oh, something about 10,000, I saw?

Kay: Yes, right and at Christmas time, we give away about 16,000 gifts for the elderly.

Jim: Sixteen thousand.

Kay: Yes.

Jim: That's so good.

Kay: Right.

Jim: And when we have done that, it's been so amazing just to see the response from folks. And there's usually kind of two responses. One, they're not comfortable or they don't know what's happening. You know, their mental acuity is not as sharp as it once was. And then others that are so pleasantly surprised—

Kay: Right.

Jim: --and they're completely functional, but they just live in these assisted living homes and they are so thankful that kids, especially—

Kay: That's right.

Jim: --come to visit them.

Kay: Yes, we had one year, we have a lot of homemade quilts and blankets that we take in. We have a yarn drive in January and February and then we give out that yarn to groups of people who will then make us Christmas gifts. And one year, we went into a facility here. It was a nursing home, and this lady had like three or four draped around her, because they were just rags and she needed that many to cover up her top, you know.

And so, I walked over to her and I took out this beautiful homemade blanket and I said, "I'd like to give this to you." And she said, "I don't have the money to buy it." And I said, "No, ma'am, you don't understand. I want to give it to you." She said, "It's much too pretty for me." And I just started crying, and I put it around her and hugged her and loved on her and I said, "No, you're not. You're beautiful to God. He loves you, and you are so pretty in this." And I took a picture of her. She was just gorgeous. But she was so thrilled to be able to just get something so small as a little blanket.

Jim: Yeah. Diane, you have a ministry called Friends of the Forgotten; what a wonderful title. Why do you think the elderly are so forgotten in our culture today?

Diane: I think No. 1 reason is, it puts us right in front of our own mortality. I mean, do we not work desperately hard to stay young, keep young, eat right? The goal is to journey as far as we can, right, in good health. And when you visit, especially a skilled-care facility, you are seeing people who are at their very last stop. They're not going home. They are going to perish in that place that holds all their belongings in one tiny room, that they probably share with another person.

Jim: Yeah.

Diane: They've lost home, family, health, friends. They've lost everything and so, I think that is the reason that a lot of us don't want to take a trip into a care facility. We would rather go all the way across the world on a mission trip, because we can come back home and say, "Thank You, God, that that's not me; that's not my family living those horrible circumstances."

Jim: Yeah.

Diane: But we walk into a nursing home, and we know that, that could be someone we love, or it could be us, and might very well be some day. That's a hard reality.

Jim: It is. You know, one of those Christmases, Kay, that Jean, the boys and I helped distribute those gifts, I remember one woman really impacted me and we went in. She was sitting in a wheelchair in the sunshine through the window and we walked in and she was so pleased to see us and was completely cognitive, completely lucid. She said, "I don't have much of an issue. My family just felt I needed help with cooking."

Kay: Right.

Jim: But she said, "You know, the sad part of it is, I really don't see many of my family members anymore."

Kay: No.

Jim: "It's like they just put me here and they never visit me." That's a tragedy, isn't it?

Kay: It is. About 85 percent of those who live in a skilled-care or nursing home have no regular visitors.

Jim: Eighty-five—

Kay: Eighty-five percent.

Jim: --percent. No regular visitors.

Kay: No regular visitors. And about 50 percent of those who live in skilled care have no family members. So, we have a large group of people there. Some of 'em were military wives. They came here. They never had children, and they have no family at all.

But we have a lot of people who have family here even in the same town that they reside in. They just don't feel the need to go see them.

Jim: Ah, that is such a tragedy. And there is, to be fair, there are other experiences that we have had. I talked about Troy when he was pretty young. He was probably 5, and Trent was 7 and we were distributing the gifts. And I remember, Troy took a package in to a woman. She was sharing a room, just as you described, and Troy walked in with a bag, with a blanket and other goodies in there. And he was trying to give it to her, and she didn't understand what was happening, which is, you know, we get that. But she thought he was trying to steal something from her.

Kay: Right, yeah.

Jim: So, he kind of panicked and didn't know what to do. And I said, "No, no." I was standing nearby, so I said, "That's okay, Troy. She's just not quite, you know, capable of knowing why you're here, to bless her at Christmas, so just leave it in the chair."

Kay: Right.

Jim: And he just did that and then backed out of the room. But you do encounter people—

Kay: Sure.

Jim: --who have some mental impairment now.

Kay: Right and you know, they've lost so many choices. They rarely get to make choices.

Jim: Yeah.

 Kay: So, we train our volunteers and our chaplains when they go in, give them as many choices as possible. Do you want to go to the living room? Do you want to go outside? What would you like to do today? But we do have a chaplaincy school that we train chaplains to go in and we have a training class for volunteers, because we want them to be trained. We want them to feel comfortable in what they're doing when they go into a facility.

Jim: Diane, when you look at this, this situation, I mean, talk about a field that's ready for harvest. I mean, these are people for the most part, that are sometimes days away or weeks away—

Diane: Absolutely.

Jim: --or certainly just a few years away from encountering death and moving into eternity.

Diane: That's absolutely right.

Jim: What do we need to better understand as Christians, seeing this field as Jesus said, this field that's white unto harvest? Can't be a more ripe field than—

Diane: No—

Jim:--people than—

Diane: --I don't believe—

Jim: --people that close—

Diane: --there is.

Jim: --to death.

Diane: You know, and I agree.

Kay: I agree.

Diane: I think that one of the most important things is to recognize the loss and the grief that they're feeling. The tendency that we see when we've trained people to send out, is to try to tell them that it's okay. Try to make it better, you know. It's a nice home. This is a pretty facility. Mom, this is a much nicer place than where you lived before. We try to gloss over and kind of push away the fact that they're grieving so many losses, and they are facing the final days of their lives. And as you mentioned, Jim, it could be tomorrow.

Jim: Yeah.

Diane: We try to encourage people when they're going into facilities, to recognize that the people that you are going to speak to today, this may be the very last opportunity that they have to hear about how much God loves them--

Jim: Think of that. There's …

Diane: --to know the love and grace of Jesus.

Jim: Very few sunrises left for them.

Diane: Exactly.

Jim: What a way to think of that. Diane, help us understand what your ministry does. What do you do to practically help?

Diane: Well, our ministry locally does outreaches. We don't do weekend services. We've found when we started our ministry over 15 years ago that Sunday morning, when we would go and do the church service, all that we would really gather there would be churched people.

Jim: Right.

Diane: And we recognize very early on that there's a very large population of people living in assisted living that are not church people, that do not have a relationship with Jesus. So, we transitioned early in our ministry into doing weekday outreaches and we call them music outreaches. And they really are songs that connect the soul, and we used hymns, because believers connect with those, but it's amazing how many older people know hymns, even though they perhaps were not raised in the church.

Jim: Right.

Diane: And so, we incorporate songs and stories from the book I wrote six years ago, Finding Life in the Last Season. And we try to connect on that heart level, that emotional level, speaking directly to what it is they're needing to hear to encourage their hearts.

And then, always with a message of how much God loves them, right at their point of need, right where He finds them today, no matter where they came from, no matter what they've been through, no matter what their relationship has been in the past with Him, He's there, and He loves them.

Jim: You've talked about that sense of hopelessness, if I could paint that picture. You know, you do find that in these facilities. Kay, you had a powerful story of a man who rejected receiving gifts for many years. Tell us what happened.

Kay: Well, we've been delivering Christmas gifts for many years here locally in the Springs. And so, one year, we had a group of Focus employees actually [who] went with us. And we had this man, he was in a wheelchair, but every year he refused to receive a gift and he was not very nice.

Jim: Pretty gruff.

Kay: Yes, he just said, "No, I don't want any part of that." And so, but one year, one of the Focus employees brought their children and a little boy about 7-years-old walked up to him, and had this conversation with him. And the man was crying and he received a gift from this little boy. And so, after everybody left the facility, I went back over to talk to him, to find out why he was so open that day.

And he said, well, he told me this story of being in Vietnam and his whole unit being killed except for him on Christmas Eve. And he made a decision that night that he never wanted God and he never wanted to celebrate Christmas again.

But there was something about this little boy that broke through all of that and something just cracked and broke and healed him inside when this little boy gave him that gift. And so, it was just such a blessing to see God transform this man, just because a little child gave him a Christmas gift.

Jim: Well, and what pain was there, as you talked about earlier. I mean, we don't know what's behind those faces that you walk into those facilities and talk with, what kind of life they have led for 70, 80, 90 years—

Kay: Absolutely.

Jim: --and what pain they have, what regrets they have, what resentment they may have toward God Himself.

Kay: We see a lot of residents in the facilities who, if you ask them, on the surface, did you go to church? They say, "Yes." But if you ask them if they know Jesus Christ as their Savior, many of them will say, "I have no idea what you're talking about." And that opens up the door for us then to read Scripture to them, pray with them and lead them to Christ. We lead more people to Christ in a facility, than most churches in Colorado Springs do.

John: Wow, that's a startling realization. The need is so great there and in the case of the story you told about the man and the gift, 40 years. I'm thinking, he's got 40 years of agony and anguish surrounding—

Kay: Yes.

John: --Christmas and a young boy can open that heart up just by being there. And I hope, as a listener, you're encouraged by hearing how you can make a difference, just by showing up at these care facilities. And we'd like to help you with some other steps along the way in doing this, in opening up your life to reach out to those in need. Stop by our website for some resources and some helps. That's

Jim: Diane, talk about the early years of doing this. You have two children. They're—

Diane: We do.

Jim: --grown now' they're in their 20s, I believe.

Diane: They are.

Jim: So, how did they react? Are they still engaged with this? And how did your family actually get started? What was the door opener for you?

Diane: Well, it was a process. It wasn't wake up one morning; let's quit our jobs and do this full time, for sure. We had really been praying as a family, what could we do outside of the four walls of the church? Just wanting to be, you know, the hands and feet of Jesus, and we had tried a number of different things, and God kept bringing us back to Scriptures about the widow and the orphan.

And through the early years of our ministry, before we actually founded it, we traveled to Africa. We did some work with orphanages. We actually built two orphanages in Kenya. And then we, on the home base front, spent time in nursing homes and ministering to elderly people and just sharing the love of Jesus with them.

We didn't actually begin to formulate that into a ministry until about three years after we started doing it, and it was at that point where God said, "This is a mission field of people right here in your own community." And we prayed about it, and our kids were small. We had a mortgage and car payment and all those things, but we really felt like God was asking us to lay down our jobs and start raising our own support and become domestic missionaries.

Jim: Well, so often here at Focus, we're stressing getting kids into volunteer activity as early as you can and as often as you can, and of course, this is a great way for people to do that. And my kids have really enjoyed that. Talk about those attributes, though, that you're seeing in your children now. If I could ask you and press you a bit to be more specific, what are those character development things that you see in children that are able to serve?

Diane: I see kids looking right through the outer exterior of a person and seeing right into the heart. You know, they might be a little intimidated in a nursing home setting initially, with the walkers and the wheelchairs and the dementia. But a couple of exposures to that and they see right through all that, right to the person underneath.

I used to laugh at my daughter when she was little, because she would be describing someone after we went home that she saw at the nursing home and she's say, "You know, that girl, that little girl in the wheelchair." I was like, "You know, no, she was 90," but (Laughter) you know, she just connected with her on such a close level that it was like a friend. It was more of a friend than someone that she was visiting.

John: Yeah, you know, Jim, I remember when Dena's dad was in a nursing home. He needed full-time medical care and we took the kids down there to see him and the first moment we walked in, it was everything you're describing, Diane, in terms of a foreign place.

Diane: Right.

John: And there are the smells and the sounds and so much there and our youngest was probably 8 at the time, 7 or 8 and he kinda recoiled a little bit at all of that. But by the end of the day, he wanted to push Papa's wheelchair around. He was all in and he got it. He did just what you described. He saw past the circumstances and past some of that gruffness and that sadness and said, "I want to do something here. I want to push the wheelchair, and it was a small thing, but a pretty big step for a child to take.

Diane: Absolutely. Children seem to move past all those things much faster than adults do.

Jim: Yeah, they do. Sometimes a child's temperament, again, we're talking about service things that the whole family can do. That's what makes this program helpful to people, because again, out of sight, out of mind. If you don't have elderly parents, perhaps, or grandparents in your life, you may not think of literally thousands of people right here in Colorado Springs, thousands of people who are living in assisted living homes that have nobody. Eighty-five percent, as you said, Kay, don't have anybody visiting them. I mean, that is frightening.

But temperament of a child can play into this. 'Cause again, my two boys, I have one that's fairly extroverted. One's a little more introverted. How would you coach the parents with that kind of child? You know, it's a little harder for an introverted child to walk into that overwhelming environment, with all the things that you just described, Diane, and to absorb it, to process it and to feel comfortable in it.

My more extroverted child, he's all in. He doesn't care. He does look right through it and he'll push anybody around in a wheelchair, especially if he can run (Laughter), which may not be wise. (Laughter) But Trent, my older one, would be a little more concerned about being in that environment. How would you coach a parent in that way?

Kay: Well, I do, do training classes for young people and adults, and in the classes when I'm working with the younger people, I always tell them, look past the shell. You're looking at the shell. We want to get to the spirit of the person, and so, you have to look past the brokenness, the slobbering, the, you know, everything that's going on with them and just remember, that's not the real person. And so, if we can instill that into them before they ever go in, that changes them. And they love, absolutely love children.

Jim: They do.

Kay: I went in with a young man that was an employee at Focus. He came in with his family, and I got there a little early and I was talking to the people around the fireplace and said, "You know, got a gentleman coming in with four of his children, and we're gonna visit for a while." And so, I was waiting over by the door after my conversation with several of the residents and in comes the man with his children, and this older gentleman looked at me and said, "You know, lady, I'm sorry; we don't care anything about you. We just want to see the children." (Laughter)

John: Don't take it personally. (Laughter)

Jim: He just kinda cut to the chase.

Kay: Yeah, he does; he was just interested in the—

Jim: What—

Kay: --children.

Jim: --why is that? Why is that so universal, that elderly people love engaging with children?

Diane: Because God created us to be an intergenerational people. And we are not intergenerational anymore. We have lost that in our families. We're so disconnected and I visited a man down in Western Colorado and we moved him to Canon City.

And the first question when I went to see him in Canon City was, where are the children? Because when he was down in Del Norte, half of the building was a nursing home and half was a daycare.

Jim: Oh.

Diane: And so, the children were in and out all the time and it was good for the children and it was good for the elderly—

Jim: That's an interesting—

Diane: --people.

Jim: --concept actually.

Diane: I think it's the way to go, because you have such intergenerational interaction there.

Jim: Diane, let me ask you first and then Kay follow up with the same question. What are some of the activities that you can do? I know you do the Christmas giveaway. We participate in that. You're doing kind of hymn sing-alongs during the week. What are some other things that can be done to engage these folks?

Diane: Well, I think one thing that's very important to start with, with someone wanting to start a ministry perhaps with their family or just go out and do some one-on-one, talk to the activities director or the recreational therapy director at that facility. There are a number of activities that they need help with. And that's a good way to engage people that, like you're saying, maybe aren't an extroverted person or an extroverted child. What's something that they do like to do, because if they're having a painting activity for the residents, that's something that someone who maybe is a little bit more creative, but more quiet, can help with in a way where they can connect on a level where they're enjoying the same activity. So, the activities director is a very key person at any facility to connect with, to try to find what the need is and can involve people with their gifting.

Finding Life in the Last Season is a devotional book that I wrote, and I wrote that book with the intention of giving people tools to be able to make those connections. It's very simple to read someone a story and most people really love to be read to. And a lot of children really like to read to someone and so, we use that book as a tool to be able to connect people in that way and it also shares a message in a very "unchurchy," "unpreachy," very simple, straightforward way that shares the love of Jesus and anyone can do it.

Jim: And we're gonna make that available, correct?

Diane: Yes.

Jim: Yeah, you know, we've touched on this, but that phase of life, kind of the end lap, if we think of it that way, it can be so lonely, especially if your family has basically planted you there and never comes to see you, and boy, all the regret that can build up.

Tying this all together for me, you know, Jean's mom passed away not long ago and she was the last of the grandparents and I remember I got the phone call from Jean, who was with her mom when she passed and Jean called me and let me know and it was about 9:30 at night. The boys were just kinda gettin' ready for bed, so I didn't want to upset that.

And the next morning at breakfast we were together, the three of us around the table and I said, "Boys, I gotta let you know, Grandma's gone. She passed away last night." And Trent, my oldest, I remember he quickly turned to me and he said, "We don't have any more grandparents." And you know, right now it's striking me that, that might be a way to connect with some older people, because you do learn a lot in that environment. My 15-, 13-year-old could really learn from kind of an adopted grandparent.

Kay: We have a program called Adopt a Grandparent.

Jim: You do! There you go.

Kay: Yes and it is good, because they can learn so much from each other.

Jim: Yeah and brighten each other's life.

Kay: The elderly have so many stories; they just don't have anyone to tell them to--

Jim: Right, isn't that so true.

Kay: --that will listen to them.

Jim: What I loved about Trend's heart in that regard was just the tenderness—

Kay: Yes.

Jim: --that he realized that's something I now do not have.

Kay: Don't have, yeah.

Jim: And he was missing it and that may be something that we need to connect him to. That's exactly it. Well, listen, this has been terrific. I love the insights. Thank you for what you do.

Kay: Thank you.

Jim: Thank you for how you go about doing it. What would you say to the family, like my family or John's family, to encourage us to engage? What would be your best pitch?

Diane: I would say to really grasp the truth that people are in their final days and they live right down the street from your house. They're your neighbors. Don't wait. Just pack up the family and go. It's not hard to go love somebody. And it's a great opportunity. You get back so much from a generation of people who, a lot of families have lost touch with that, like you said. They don't have grandparents. What a wonderful way to introduce your family into the life of someone who's going to enrich their life and you can give so much to them and to speak the love and grace of Jesus into the life of someone whose days are short.

Kay: Are numbered.

Jim: Oh, I so appreciate that and again, there's tools to help you. We'll make that connection, John. Diane, your book, Finding Life in the Last Season, terrific tool to use in that setting to read those stories to people who will really benefit listening to them. Thanks for bein' with us.

Diane: Thank you so much for having us.

Kay: It's been a privilege. Thank you again so much.


 John: Diane Doering and Kay Owen-Larson have been our guests and we'll encourage you to stop by our website to find Diane's book, also a guide called Across the Generations, that you can download to help you and your family become more confident in encouraging older adults around you. We have an article by Kay, as well. All of this and the CD or download of the program at or when you call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY; we'll tell you more, 800-232-6459.

And let me just say here, thank you for praying for the ministry of Focus on the Family. There is so much that goes on here and your prayers are making a big difference. And also, when you give to the ministry, you're helping us to produce programs like this and reach out and inspire families. And we heard from Sally who told us how much she and her friends in Lubbock, Texas appreciate Focus.

She says she's listened to the broadcast since it began and she's passed along much of what she's learned from Focus on the Family to her kids and grandkids. They're now being raised with our advice and she's extremely grateful to be a contributor to Focus on the Family.

Well, Sally, we appreciate that and there are so many like you who have benefited from the work of Focus and are financially supporting the effort and we're very, very grateful for that. Join the support team when you donate online or call 800-A-FAMILY.

Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly, I'm John Fuller, inviting you back tomorrow, when you'll hear stories of Thanksgiving, as we once again, help you and your family thrive.

More Episode Resources


Diane Doering

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Diane Doering is the author of Finding Life in the Last Season, a collection of short stories and devotions written to encourage the aged and those who care for them. She is Director of Care Facility Outreach for Friends of the Forgotten, a non-profit to the elderly living in care facilities across the nation, founded by Diane, and her husband, Bob. She is a licensed minister and speaks at retreats and caregiver support groups. Diane has written articles for recreational therapy journals about meeting the spiritual needs of the elderly and Alzheimer's patients. She has served as a Bible teacher, radio host, worship leader and guest preacher. Diane and Bob reside in Omaha, Neb., and have two grown children. Learn more about Diane and her ministry by visiting


Kay Owen-Larson

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Kay Owen-Larson is the co-founder and president of Crossroads Ministries and the founder of the Crossroads School of Chaplaincy. She is an ordained minister with more than 50 years of experience in Christian ministry. Kay has served as a pastor, teacher, counselor and conference speaker. She and her husband, Marvin, have been married for three years. Together, they have 10 children, 25 grandchildren and four great grandchildren.