Fourteen Florida seniors fleeing Hurricane Irma with their pets and caregivers learned what it truly means to find shelter in the time of storm when Majestic Senior Living in Bowdon provided a safe haven.
Among the 35 evacuees from Marion Oaks Assisted Living Facility in Ocala, Florida, were the residents, employees, caregivers and small children.
Tanya Schuler said the decision was made to move the residents as Hurricane Irma churned in the Caribbean and moved closer to Florida, leaving a trail of death and devastation behind. She and her colleagues contacted family members and told them they wanted to take the seniors somewhere safe before the storm hit. The relatives agreed, some coming by to help back while others tried to assist on the journey.
“It took us 14 hours to get from Ocala to Bowdon,” she said. “We took the back roads to avoid the traffic on the highway and we stopped a few times for them to eat and so on. We also had a few pets as well as the two small children of one of our caregivers. We got to Majestic after midnight.
"Was it worth it? I would say so because we called to check back with some of the other centers and it’s heartbreaking. One of the centers we know moved all their residents to the second level and some of them are sleeping on the floor with their oxygen and other things and they have no power and the first level is flooded. So yes, I am so glad we took a leap of faith to come.”
Schuler broke down in tears as she described how overwhelmed she was after meeting Bruce Allen, owner of Majestic Living, his wife, and employees who welcomed them with open arms. However, it was the support from Carroll County and bordering towns in Alabama that made her melt.
“To see these … these strangers just be so welcoming and take us in like family … I can’t even find words,” she said. “They had coloring books and toys for the children and they had cat litter and dog and cat treats and food and they had everything our seniors need and I just never met a community this caring before. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. I mean, we are away from home but the love and support that we have had has been overwhelming. ... It's a big huge extended family in the short period of time we've been here. You know, sometimes a crisis it just draws people closer. This genuine love and you just can't put into words.”
Schuler said she prepared the seniors, most of whom have Alzheimer's or other trouble remembering things, by telling them they were going on vacation. With Majestic celebrating The Longest Day Alzheimer's awareness this past Saturday and hosting a vintage car show featuring an Elvis Presley impersonator, the seniors were well at ease.
A lively red-haired resident known as "Amazing Grace" got up to show off her dance moves, something she said will come in handy on Sept. 30 when she celebrates her 100th birthday. She was eager to share stories of her youth and said she was enjoying herself immensely.
Charlotte Lee Malschick was most alert of the situation because she had been communicating with her son and insisted on watching the news before and after she arrived in Bowdon.
When asked how the ride was, she replied, “It was rough.”
“You know you live through these things and they get better and better," she said. "You know, I felt sorry for the people in other places and the water hit very bad but we are here, safe and sound. They have taken very good care of us. It's a very nice place. The food is good and the people are good. The people who are here work very hard, very hard and they try to please everybody and help everybody. They are very kind here.”
Elizabeth Sprewell said she was unable to name so many people from Carrollton, Bowdon, Ranburne, Alabama, Villa Rica, Temple churches and other places who pitched in as soon as they heard Majestic would be housing the residents. She said she knew Carroll County was a caring community but she had never imagined this level of support.
"The outpouring of love from everybody," said Sprewell. "We put the word out that they were coming, we had our staff here stay overnight to help get them in and get them settled. The whole community... when they knew they were coming, it just started."
The Marion Oaks residents were expected to stay at Majestic Living until Wednesday or at least until their staff back home have assessed their facility and deemed it safe for them to return. However, Bruce Allen, owner of Majestic Living said that based on reports he had been getting, he expected their guests to stay a bit longer.
Allen said that so many assisted living centers in Florida were unable to find help when they needed it and other facilities were refusing to take them in on such short notice. He said some residents of the homes that debated too long ended up staying.
While few facility owners felt there may have been an overreaction to relocate residents all the way up to Georgia, Allen said he and the Marion Oaks owner contacted the Florida officials to get a better idea of what might happen. That was when they decided to move before it was too late. They have not regretted that decision.
"These people are among our most vulnerable in the community so it was not an option," Allen said. "It's something you make space for and you figure out the arrangements as you go along to ensure they have a safe place to be. When we were contacted, there was absolutely no hesitation on our part and then when we asked for help, so many came forward to donate. We still don't know the status of their building but they will definitely be here for a while. Even if they wanted to head back, we would not want to know they were down there for at minimum 10 days without electricity. Yes, we are still welcoming assistance and even when they go back, we want to make sure they are properly stocked as some of the places they may have relied on cannot service them due to damages. We can't say enough about our community for stepping up to help with our guests."