SPIRIT OF STANLY 2023: Seniors provide inspiration for young leaders

Even though Stanly County’s population continues to grow, it’s not just young families calling the county home.

There are more residents 65 and older living in the county than people 18 and younger.

The North Carolina Office of State Budget and Management projects that the population of people 65 and older will increase by about 31% (from 12,377 in 2020 to 16,222) by 2040, while the population of people 85 and older will increase by 94% (from 1,274 to 2,474), the two biggest jumps by any age group. Stanly residents 17 and younger are expected to decrease by 0.1%, while those 18-44 are predicted to increase by just 0.7%.

“That trend is going to continue upwards and I think it’s going to take folks that work in this department to advocate for them,” said Stanly County Senior Services director Pamela Sullivan, who oversees the Senior Center. “As people age, they need more services, they need more activities.”

While she has been with Senior Services for almost a decade, Sullivan presents an interesting intergenerational dynamic in that she is only 37. The same is true for Alexa Sells, the senior center’s program coordinator, who is 24.

Alexa Sells chats with Kathy Hunt at the Stanly County Senior Center.

Sullivan and Sells acknowledged they are both “old souls,” noting that each had older family members who played key roles in their upbringing.

When she was a young child in Norwood, Sullivan spent a lot of time with her great-aunt, who looked after her when Sullivan’s parents were working.

“It feels like home whenever I am around older adults,” Sullivan said.

After graduating with a degree in health education & promotion from East Carolina University, Sullivan initially worked as a health educator with the Stanly County Health Department before transitioning to program coordinator with the senior center in 2011. Once Becky Weemhoff, the director of senior services for almost two decades, retired in April 2021, Sullivan took over the position.

“Initially, when I first started out, I was excited to see what all seniors could do and what they were capable of,” Sullivan said.

Sells, who grew up in Richfield, had always had a strong relationship with her grandparents, who would often pick her up from school and looked after her during the summers.

“I have always enjoyed the older generations,” Sells said. “I got to listen to all of my grandparents’ stories and their music. Every part of my life has involved my grandparents, which has led me to appreciating these seniors (at the senior center).”

A Pfeiffer University graduate with a degree in exercise physiology, Sells applied for a job at the Stanly County Family YMCA when George Crooker, the YMCA CEO, talked to her about the vacant program coordinator position at the senior center, thinking it could be a better fit for Sells.

Both Sullivan and Sells appreciate how the quality time spent with their older family members as children has helped with the work they are doing now on behalf of seniors throughout the county.

“As an adult, I look back on my time with my great-aunt and think how precious that was,” Sullivan said. “And now I have the opportunity to work with the older population in this community and I get to advocate on their behalf and work with them and for them on a daily basis.”

Sandra Burris, left, checks in with senior services director Pamela Sullivan.

Since Sullivan took over, many virtual classes have been organized, primarily because of the COVID-19 pandemic, as many older adults prefer taking part from home, but also because people like Sells and Sullivan are more comfortable with newer technologies, such as Zoom. There was also a class twice a week in January, where the instructor taught seniors how to use smartphones.

The facility, which averages around 100 people each day, typically serves a range of people, from those in their 50s to people 90 and up. Sullivan said she wants to restart the tradition of hosting a joint birthday party for seniors turning 90 or older, something that she has put on hold because of the pandemic.

“So we try to capture people as young as we possibly can to keep them active and socially engaged,” Sullivan said.

In scheduling events each week, Sells understands that as much as seniors enjoy working out or playing card games, they come to the facility to be with each other. This is especially true for the roughly 3,200 people in Stanly that live alone, which comprises about 27% of all seniors 65 and older, per the state data.

“We are an outlet for socialization,” she said. “They may tell you they’re coming to exercise class, but they are really coming to enjoy the time with their friends.”

Sells enjoys coming up with activities and exercises that appeal to seniors and bring them to the center.

“I just love being that outlet because I will sit down and have a 30-minute conversation with them if that is what they need for that day,” Sells added.

Harriet Brooks, 77, who has been an active member of the senior center for the past decade, appreciates the “enthusiasm and leadership” Sullivan and Sells have displayed, especially the many field trips they have organized, including recent ones to Charleston, South Carolina and Alaska.

“When we do the trips, one or both are always with us and they are always active and encouraging,” Brooks said. “It’s very good for us to be around younger people and they can see what we need and what works for us.”

Fran Perusich, a New York native who has lived in Stanly since 2016, enjoys the trips, noting Sullivan and Sells “are busy with us all the time.”

With the classes and activities that take place each week, along with field trips, “they keep us moving and keep us active,” said Perusich’s wife Chris. “They always make it interesting.”

Pamela Sullivan is shown on a recent field trip. Photo courtesy of Pamela Sullivan.

Many of the seniors known Sells or Sullivan since the pair were kids. They have enjoyed reestablishing those connections over the last couple of years.

Sells, who helps lead a yoga class whenever the regular teacher is out, “is just as energetic here as she was when I knew her in elementary school,” said Sandra Burris, who has been a regular at the center for the past two years.

“I think they have helped to keep us young,” she added. “They have the energy and pass it on to us.”

Coming from a fast-paced generation that always seems to be on the move, Sullivan said seniors have talked to her about slowing down and enjoying each moment.

“For me personally, I take that for granted because our lives are so busy and so constant and so whenever I hear them say that, I try and remind myself, ‘Okay, I do need to slow down and just enjoy the ride,’” she said.

As she looks toward the future, Sullivan said the senior center “will strive to be innovative in how we deliver vital programs and services and connect older adults to essential community resources to help them stay healthy, socially engaged, and independent.”

Neither Sullivan nor Sells have any plans on leaving the center anytime soon. For Sullivan, working with older adults has been much more than just a paid position within the county.

“I wake up every day and I come to a job, but it’s not just a job, it’s a passion,” she said, noting it is a “nice reward” to work with older adults. “I love working with this generation and being able to give back to them as they give back to me. It really is touching.”