Imparting love, laughter, joy to the elderly

Published 1:47 pm Saturday, May 6, 2023

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Stella Nelson has made it her mission to put smiles on the faces of those who gather daily at the Harrogate Senior Center.

“My absolute biggest accomplishment is watching my people enjoy their lives,” said Nelson, who is the Center Coordinator. “When some first come, they’ve lost a spouse and are heartbroken.”

Seeing those downcast faces turn into delighted ones, Nelson says, is her reward.

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She says she has found her true calling. The Senior Center has certainly profited by all that has been accomplished by Nelson since taking over the position in November, 2021.

An exhaustive hunt for new programs and projects to engage the seniors has paid off handsomely. The creation of a grief counseling class has brought significant relief and a vision for a brighter tomorrow to those who have had to say their final goodbyes to spouses – some who have been a constant companion for several decades.

The classes meet each second Thursday in the month at 10 a.m., led by a grief counselor from Smoky Mountain Hospice.

The Center draws more than a few veterans, which Nelson says she and the others “hugely support.”

“Two of my guys got to go on the honor flight last year and we are working on getting some others to go,” said Nelson.

The Veterans Honor Flight is a national project that sets up a whirlwind one-day flight to our nation’s capital, where the vets receive a tour of all Washington D.C. and surrounding areas have to offer. While there, they are honored with a luncheon and other recognition. Historically, the vets land on their return flight with throngs of well wishers honoring the men and women as they depart the plane.

Rita Weltner, a regular at the Senior Center, has nothing but praise for the way Nelson has stepped up to the plate and brought “love, laughter, joy and excitement” to the facility.

“Stella searches out speakers and programs that enrich our lives,” said Weltner. “She never hesitates to help anyone that is in need, be it helping someone learn how to operate their new phone, computer knowledge, lending an ear or any other need we who request assistance may have. She plans trips and activities to enjoy that keep us active. She always tries to get discounts on tickets for some of the outings.”

Weltner says Nelson encourages her people to get involved in activities that are geared towards the needs and abilities of the seniors whether in health, mind or body.

“She encourages all of us to make new friends and to be social. She has helped many members come out of their shells of shyness and loneliness.”

Weltner says it is “admirable” the way in which Nelson worries about the seniors who may miss a few days.

“She will call to check on them to make sure they are well and to see if they need anything. She sees to it that they go to their personal doctors if she notices a change in their health,” said Weltner.

Nelson prepares healthy meals on Wednesdays that, according to Weltner, are a big draw and something the seniors look forward to each week.

Working with special needs and the elderly since the age of 18, Nelson holds her CNA license which landed her at Diversicare. She moved into the position of the Workforce Manager Coordinator for that agency.

“I believe the Lord places you where you’re supposed to be. I grew up at Diversicare with my Mom – she worked there. I think that’s where I got my love for the elderly from,” said Nelson.

There is never a dull moment at the Harrogate Senior Center with daily activities Monday through Friday ranging from U.T. Extension nutrition classes to bingo, from Bible study to sewing and a project entitled “Dancing with Parkinson’s.” The lower floor of the building is dedicated to games like air hockey, pool, shuffleboard, ping pong and cornhole.

Nelson is currently overseeing the renovation of the building interior with fresh coats of paint, new flooring and other necessities. The physical structure has not undergone a reno since 1979.

A picnic pavilion was added last summer to the grounds, which is reportedly well-used during good weather for cookouts and games.

Tuesday mornings are reserved for Office on Aging Director Tammy Austin, who helps seniors with a myriad of concerns like paying utilities and finding places to live.

“I had a little woman who was eating cat food and we were able to get her food through the Office on Aging. My goal is for this Senior Center to be a resource center for the elderly.”

Nelson says she “fits in” with the senior set.

“I’m like an old soul who likes canning, flea marketing and I have critters like chickens, turkeys and dogs.”

Weltner spoke of Nelson’s contributions to the facility.

“There is so much Stella has done to improve the center itself and continues daily to do so – even to making the Senior Center bright and welcoming. The transformation to the inside of the building is remarkable. Everyone who comes there has nothing but praise for her. She has truly brought new life to the Harrogate Senior Center. We are truly blessed to have her as our coordinator,” said Weltner.