ROCK HILL, S.C.- On a cold December morning in this small South Carolina town, Nell Carrier is waiting on company. Carrier, 86, is a resident of Westminster Towers, a retirement community developed by Westminster Presbyterian Church (PCA). The church sits just across the parking lot from the Towers, along with the congregation's K-12 Westminster Catawba Christian School.
At 10:30 a.m. sharp, 15 4-year-olds in bulky coats and brightly colored gloves march single-file past the 10-foot Christmas tree in the Towers' main lobby. The pre-kindergarten class from the Westminster church school gathers here once a week in a cozy living room in the Towers' assisted living wing to listen to residents read stories. With the holidays upon them, they sit Indian-style at the foot of Carrier's rocking chair while she reads Mrs. Wishy Washy's Christmas and holds the pictures high for the children to see.
Carrier, who has no children, says she looks forward to the weekly story time. "It brings back good memories," she told WORLD. "It reminds me of my nieces and nephews." The retired U.S. Army nurse now suffers from severe arthritis but is thankful for opportunities like these to stay active and help others: "To me that's the most important thing in the world."
Carrier is one of 4.2 million people in the country over the age of 85, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHS). The elderly population in the United States is soaring as life expectancies increase: More than 36 million people in the country are over 65, compared with just 3.1 million a century ago. DHS estimates that the 85-plus population will more than double over the next 20 years.
As the aging population grows, so does the need for good housing and care. Nearly 20 percent of people over age 85 live in nursing homes, according to DHS. But the problem is that many among the elderly are psychologically and spiritually isolated. That's why Westminster church nearly three decades ago began discussing plans to build a retirement community. Though the church was new, had less than 300 members, and didn't own property at the time, its leaders had a vision for building a retirement center that would help aging members and others to avoid isolation.
The Rock Hill area already had a handful of nursing homes, but none offered what the church had in mind: a place for seniors who want to live independently, but also want low-maintenance apartments in a tight-knit community close to church and children. The church decided the nonprofit facility would also care for those with more serious health needs through assisted living and nursing home wings.
Church members made substantial donations. Local banks offered reasonable financing. Still, it took nearly 15 years to raise money, buy property, draw plans, and build the facility next to the church. Westminster Towers opened in June 1989. The six-story facility now houses 145 independent apartments, 29 assisted living units, and 66 nursing home rooms. The average age of residents is 82.
Tony Fountain, president and CEO of Westminster Towers for three years, called residents by name on a recent mid-morning tour. In the facility's main living room, residents visit on comfortable couches and red wingback chairs. A small library in the corner is packed with books, newspapers, magazines, and puzzles. Large windows overlook an outdoor patio with potted flowers and wooden rocking chairs.
A newly hired wellness director coordinates fitness programs and exercise classes using the facility's indoor swimming pool. A packed activities calendar offers something to do throughout the week: Bible studies, movie nights, day trips, dessert socials, Big Band nights, square dances, and poetry clubs.
Crucially, many residents make the short walk across the parking lot to attend services at the church on Sundays. Younger church members make regular trips to the Towers as well: They lead Bible studies and hymn sings, and check on residents who live alone. They visit residents with limited mobility in the assisted living and nursing home wings, and often read or pray with them. "The residents like knowing the church hasn't forgotten about them," says Fountain.
But the residents haven't forgotten about the church either. Many are regularly involved with service opportunities, and Fountain says his staff is eager to encourage them to remain as productive and active as possible: "Here is a group of people with a host of talent and wisdom and gifts. We should be thinking about what they can offer us as well."
To that end, the Towers' staff facilitates a wide range of volunteer opportunities: Residents mentor at-risk children in a local public elementary school, volunteer for Hospice, play instruments in the church orchestra, fold and stuff church bulletins, work at a local Alzheimer's association, and raise money for mission trips. "Some people think if you're in a senior living community you're at the end of your life and you're waiting for the Lord to call you home," says Fountain. "But these people are still looking for opportunities to serve."
Ernestine Howard has found an opportunity to serve twice a month in Mary Weaver's kindergarten class at Westminster's Christian school. "The kids are so refreshing," says Howard, 77, on her way to class on a crisp morning.
Inside Weaver's busy classroom, some 20 kindergartners sit around short tables listening to their teacher's instructions. Paper plates decorated with owl faces and brown paint hang from the ceiling, and a sign with bright blue letters in the front of the class reads: "This is the day that the Lord has made." On this day, Weaver explains each activity the children will complete at different stations around the room. While Howard and two other volunteers help students stay focused, Weaver spends individual reading time with each child in a connecting room.
Howard scoots up to one of the small tables in a tiny yellow chair to help a group of children arrange words on slips of paper into a sentence. The children paste the words onto manila strips of construction paper with purple glue and look to Howard for approval. One boy tells Howard his grandmother is coming to visit. Another tells her if you flip the word "dog," it spells "God." Others ask for help figuring out how to put the sentence together. Howard praises each child as he reads the finished product.
"You can just see the wheels turning," she says with a smile. Howard also volunteers at a local public elementary school as a mentor to children who need extra attention: "I like the one-on-one time with them. And I think they like it too."
Amy Laughlin, director of campus activities at the Towers, volunteers with Howard in Weaver's class and says getting seniors and children together is "a great intergenerational thing." Small children from the church school come to the Towers to sing and read with residents. When the older students study World War II, Towers military veterans put on their bomber jackets and go to class to share firsthand stories of the battles in textbooks.
Laughlin, 27, is a church member who started out as a volunteer at the Towers. Three years later she joined the staff full-time. "I love them all so much," Laughlin says of the residents. "It's like they're all my grandparents."
WPC senior pastor Shelton Sanford has led a Bible study for residents on most Thursday mornings since the Towers opened 17 years ago: "One of the most fun things I get to do all week is come over and see my students at the Towers." The pastor currently leads an in-depth study of Genesis and doesn't shy away from the tough theological stuff: "They hang in there. It's such a blessing to see these godly saints who still want to learn and grow."
Sanford, 57, has found a deeper kinship with the residents recently. The pastor lost his wife of 36 years to leukemia last March. The widower says that the "greatest loss of my life" has given him "a much deeper sympathy" for residents at the Towers who have lost a spouse: "There's a lot of loss over there."
Helping residents deal with loss and pain is a regular part of the work at the Towers, especially in the assisted living and nursing home wings. Fountain says hiring good staff members who bond with residents is key. One staffer recently held her wedding in the tiny chapel in the assisted living wing so that disabled residents could share in her wedding day. Another staffer held an extra wedding reception in the Towers' dining room so residents could join the celebration.
Residents support each other as well, and Richard Tevebaugh has turned that into a regular job as the Towers' volunteer pastor-at-large. Tevebaugh and his wife moved into the Towers five years ago after his long career as a Presbyterian minister. "When I was 75 or 76 I decided it was time to hang it up and retire," he says. But Tevebaugh, 81, doesn't seem very retired: He teaches a Wednesday night men's Bible study, leads a widows support group, visits and prays with sick residents, and welcomes each new resident at the Towers: "I'm here for anyone who needs me."
On Sunday afternoons Tevebaugh leads a vespers service in the community room. Typically a row of sharply dressed ladies sits behind walkers on comfortable couches as the service begins. On one Sunday others sat on folding chairs, holding large-print songbooks, singing "Blessed Assurance" with gusto, and listening to a short Bible lesson. Tevebaugh also visits inmates at a local prison once a week and accepts invitations to preach at area churches.
Despite his busy schedule, the pastor insists that he can't think of another way he'd rather spend his time: "Anyone who retires should be looking for opportunities to serve out of gratitude to God." Each Sunday he helps wheelchair-bound Elizabeth Townsend to church. Townsend is the widow of Wycliffe Bible Translators founder William Cameron Townsend. "What a debt of gratitude the church owes to Wycliffe," Tevebaugh says. "This is payback time for me."
Churches interested in following Westminster Towers' model of serving the elderly will need two things, according to Jimmy Hambright: determination and patience. Hambright, 87, was a founding elder at Westminster church and a member of the Towers' original board of directors. Today he lives in a Towers apartment with his wife.
Hambright says a church doesn't need to be large or wealthy to take on such a project, but it does need to be willing to seek outside support. He says the church worked hard to show the surrounding community the need for good elderly care, and carefully explained how the church would meet it. That made securing financing and outside donations easier. But Hambright quickly adds that it still wasn't easy: "Every obstacle that could have been thrown at us was." But in the end, he's glad the church persevered: "It was certainly worth it."
It's certainly worth it to Nell Carrier, who says coming to the Towers was "the best move I ever made." She's looking forward to reading to schoolchildren again next week.