Aging boomers: How Golden Cross is improving the lives of low-income seniors

According to a 2012 study from the Plough Foundation, more than 10,000 Memphis seniors are currently living below the Federal Poverty Line. Over the next ten years, those numbers are expected to rise. Here’s how one nonprofit is helping poor seniors lead happy, fulfilled lives.
Everybody has her own way of doing it. Margaree lunges forward like she’s thrusting a sword. Tommy throws it over his shoulder. For Donna, it’s just a quick flick of the wrist, as though she were swatting a fly.
 
“Basically, what it is, is triangulation,” says Tommy, age 67. “Once you figure out your angle, you’re good to go.”
 
Margaree, Tommy and Donna are all low-income seniors who live in apartments administered by Wesley Housing Corporation. They’re competing in a Wii Bowling Tournament sponsored by the Golden Cross Senior Residents Fund. Today it’s the Al-Wii Cats (“Alley Cats”) of Wesley Millington Towers versus the Boll Wii-vils (“Boll Weevils”) of Wesley Highland Meadows.
 Low-income seniors compete in a Wii Bowling tournament sponsored by the Golden Cross Senior Residents Fund.
These contests are nothing to sneeze at. Team members get dressed up for the occasion, wearing brightly colored uniforms, and whenever anyone bowls a strike, the room erupts in cheers and waving pom-poms.
 
“I think it’s nice,” says Margaree, age 78, “I mostly bowl every day. It’ll give you some exercise, and it’s a great way to meet people.”
 
At each of Wesley’s 28 regional facilities, the housing is HUD-subsidized. To qualify for an apartment, you have to be at least 62 years old and make at most $32,000 per year.
 
But the government assistance stops there—and many low-income seniors need more than just an apartment. Frequently they survive on just $800 per month, in the form of a check from the Social Security Administration. All too often, that’s not enough to pay for necessities like food and prescription drugs, let alone things like clothing and furniture.
 
That’s where the Golden Cross comes in. It’s is a nonprofit that works to improve the quality of life of low-income seniors living in facilities managed by Wesley Housing Corporation. Although both organizations are administered by Wesley Living, they are run separately for tax purposes.
 Team members get dressed up for the occasion, and whenever someone bowls a strike, the room erupts in cheers and waving pom-poms.
“The big thing is the need,” says Wesley Living president David Kabakoff. “These seniors, many of them, have endured hardships. They’ve outlived their families and their finances.”
 
At today’s Wii Bowling tourney, Golden Cross paid for the Wii gaming console, the game cartridge, the TV, the pom-poms, and the snacks, which include mini sandwiches and chip-and-dip.
 
But Golden Cross buys  a lot more than video games. They also provide direct assistance to individual seniors in the form of rent, food, furniture, clothing, and medical care, as well as programs and activities designed to promote a healthy and well-balanced life—things like chair aerobics, cooking classes, and bingo.
 
“We like to give our seniors a reason to get together,” says Kabakoff, “and with the Wii Bowling thing, it’s a win-win. It’s social, it’s mentally stimulating, they get some exercise. In that way, it has a pronounced therapeutic bent.”
 
One thing’s for sure: as the Baby Boomer generation enters its golden years, there will be a lot more demand for that kind of work. According to a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center, about 10,000 people will reach the age of 65 every day for the next fifteen years. By 2030, fully 18% of the US population will be 65 or older.
 
Here in Memphis, the statistics are similarly stark. According to a 2012 study from the Plough Foundation, there are currently about 93,000 seniors (65+) living in Shelby County. Of those, about 12%—more than 10,000 seniors—are living in poverty. Over the next ten years, those numbers are expected to rise.
 
"Unfortunately," says Kathryn Coulter, chief development officer at the Aging Commission of the Mid-South, "there will never be enough public funding to assist low-income seniors in emergency situations. Many fixed-income individuals are living on budgets that don’t meet all of their basic needs. That’s why the services like those provided by Golden Cross are so crucially important."
 “I wanna give,” says Shirley, age 63. “I wanna do. So much has been done for me, and now I wanna share that with other people.”
Since its founding in 1969, Golden Cross has helped thousands of Memphis seniors, including many whose need can only be described as extreme. David Kabakoff recounts stories of individuals who were living out of pickup trucks or campers; others were being beaten and robbed by their families. One 74-year-old woman from Murray, Kentucky, was actually living in a tree house.
 
“When I say that these seniors have nothing,” says Kabakoff, “most people don’t know what that means. They just can’t wrap their heads around it.”
 
“Here’s what nothing is,” he continues. “Nothing is a couple cans of food. No furniture. No clothing, except what’s on your back. Nothing is a dirty dishrag and a bottle of generic dishwasher detergent that you have been using to bathe with.”
 
To help their most vulnerable seniors adjust to apartment living, Golden Cross has recently developed the Move-In Kit. Valued at $199.48, it includes basic necessities like bed linens, silverware, dish towels, and a shower curtain.
 
Since May, when the Move-In Kit was developed, over 15 have been donated. Kabakoff says the need is so extreme that each has been deployed within 48 hours.
 
“We’re not just being generous for the sake of being generous,” says Kabakoff. “We’re doing this because the people we help end up praising God. If you look at 2nd Corinthians, Chapter 9, it’s all right there.”
 
Kabakoff is quick to add that although Golden Cross is a faith-based nonprofit, they do not proselytize or preach, nor do they make any requirements of the people they support.
 
One of Golden Cross’s biggest selling points is the fact that 100% of the charitable donations it receives go directly to seniors—a distinction that few such nonprofits can claim. Administrative costs are covered by income from an endowment, as well as by contributions from board members and an annual charity golf tournament.
 At this year’s benefit golf tournament, over 150 players competed, and Golden Cross raised more than $20,000.
At this year’s tournament, which took place on September 18th at Windyke Country Club, over 150 players competed, and Golden Cross raised more than $20,000. Going forward, Kabakoff says he plans to expand Wesley’s services to include Home Care by Wesley, a service for seniors who would prefer to age at home.
 
“These seniors,” Kabakoff adds, “have reached a point where they should be enjoying the best life has to offer. At Wesley, we don’t just want to give them a shelter. We want to give them a sanctuary.”
 
On a recent Wednesday, I visited Wesley Highland Meadows, one of the apartment complexes where Golden Cross is making a difference. There I met Shirley, age 63, a former department store clerk who lives in one of the facility’s 200 garden-style apartments. It’s a well-appointed space with lots of natural light—but Shirley says her life hasn’t always been so sunny.
 
“This is what I call quality living,” she says, gesturing to the apartment. “Before, I was really despaired. I was just maneuvering in life. I wasn’t living.”
 
To illustrate, she lifts the hem of her dress, revealing two jagged, 7-inch scars along the tops of her knees. Because of her degenerative arthritis, Shirley had to have both of her kneecaps removed. Now she is legally disabled and survives on a monthly social security check of just $724.
 
It would be easy to imagine someone in Shirley’s situation—poor, far from family, and beset by health woes—lapsing back into despair. Some days, because of her arthritis, her wrists and ankles refuse to bend. But since moving into her apartment in October, Shirley says her experience has been very positive.
 
“The people are friendly,” she confides, “and the [care coordinators] are really involved. They want you to be happy! Not just move in and disappear into the walls.”
 
When Shirley moved in, Golden Cross bought her a bed, a couch, a dining table, and chairs. Today, they support her with a small monthly payment for food.
 
Now Shirley is giving back. With Golden Cross’s help, she has enlisted as a MIFA Senior Companion, which means that for 2-3 hours every day, she provides in-home care for Leona, a bed-ridden 65-year-old with stage 4 COPD. Through the program, Shirley cooks Leona’s meals, picks up her prescriptions, does light household chores, and keeps her company. In return, she receives a stipend of $2.65/hour.

“I wanna give,” says Shirley. “I wanna do. So much has been done for me, and now I wanna share that with other people.”

Read more articles by John Minervini.

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