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Retiring head of senior agency continues to advocate for elderly

As an outspoken advocate for the health and well-being of elderly people, Sister Suzanne Wesley's leadership — which has helped improve the quality of life for thousands of seniors the last 20 years — will be missed as she heads into retirement.

Sister Suzanne, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, was named CEO of Cardinal Ritter Senior Services, the largest agency in Catholic Charities, in 2002. She had been executive director of the Cardinal Carberry campus of Cardinal Ritter since 1997 and before that was a hospital vice president and a nursing home consultant, manager of health promotion and a home care nurse for Cardinal Ritter.

Retiring from leading Cardinal Ritter Senior Services at the end of the year, Sister Suzanne asks the community to continue its advocacy. In a letter to supporters of Cardinal Ritter, she wrote that the agency is receiving more calls than ever asking for help finding and getting resources into place for clients and residents of limited means.

"Senior adults are faced with more and more choices, but the choices are among the necessities needed to survive — shelter, medicines, food and utility bills," Sister Suzanne wrote.

At Cardinal Ritter, services vary from providing seniors volunteer opportunities, to helping those who are frail maintain as much independence as possible, and to offering a dignified, compassionate place to live for those in the last stages of life. Cardinal Ritter provides what it calls "a continuum of quality care and services for all the seasons of your senior life no matter the level of care or financial position."

Services include housing (from independent living to skilled nursing), emergency assistance, counseling, community efforts to keep seniors in their homes safely and case management.

Seniors find themselves living longer with fewer resources, Sister Suzanne said in an interview as she wrapped up her work. "It's important that we pay really close attention, particularly in the laws we pass and laws we don't pass, the funding we take away and the funding that never materializes to start with," she said.

Getting older has positive aspects such as passing on knowledge to grandchildren and spending more time with family, but has negative aspects when resources aren't available, health care and insurance costs become overwhelming or when grandparents become a primary caregiver for their grandchildren, Sister Suzanne said.

Besides legislative advocacy, she recommends people donate to agencies that care for senior adults. Visiting elderly and volunteering also are recommended. "Take them back and forth to Mass. Enjoy an activity with them. Talk to them about what's going on in the world. Ask for their prayers," Sister Suzanne suggested.

She's amazed by seniors, citing veterans and those who lived in the Depression. "They're a ray of sunshine for us in terms of how to get through hard times, how to get through lean times, how to do with what you have, how to be immersed in your family," she explained.

Cardinal Ritter's Foster Grandparent Program is one of her favorites. The federally funded program was established in 1965 to assist seniors in volunteering as role models, mentors and friends with children. The participants provide the comfort and love that sets children on a path toward a successful future. "One of my favorite stories is about a little boy who acted up so badly that he couldn't eat with the other children," Sister Suzanne said. "They put him in room to eat by himself in this particular facility. One of our Foster Grandparents who volunteered there began to eat with the boy every day. Within two months, he was able to eat with the other children again."

Cardinal Ritter is committed to its mission and has a strong commitment to the poor. "I'm proud of the care we give to people who don't have resources, and I'm proud of the care we give to people who do," she said.

Sister Suzanne encourages people to donate to Cardinal Ritter and would like to see parish-sponsored efforts to collect funds for Cardinal Ritter. "Grants and donors have been a real lifeline for us. And we have an incredible board of directors who are as committed to care for those without resources as we are and work side by side with us to make that happen," Sister Suzanne said. 

>> Serving the elderly

Sister Suzanne Wesley was born in Sheridan, Wyo. She entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in 1962 and was received into the novitiate in 1963 as Sister Joan Raymond. She received a bachelor's degree in nursing from St. Louis University in 1969 and master's degree in public health from St. Louis University in 1981.

Sister Suzanne began her more than 50 years of service in health care at St. Joseph Hospital in Kirkwood as a staff nurse. She moved to Georgia and served as head nurse at St. Joseph Hospital in Georgia until 1972. For the rest of the '70s, she was both a staff nurse at Cardinal Ritter Institute and a nurse educator at Nazareth Living Center in Oakville. In 1975, she held the position of health maintenance director at Cardinal Ritter Institute. In the 1980s she was the assistant administrator/director of nursing for Tower Village Nursing Care Center.

In 1981 she returned to St. Joseph Hospital for 14 years, serving as administrative resident, home care/hospice director, assistant vice-president, vice-president and clinical vice-president. In 1997 she began as executive director at Cardinal Carberry Senior Living Center.

In 2002 she became the chief executive officer at Cardinal Ritter Senior Services. She is a member of the St. Louis Province Leadership Team since 2008, served on the board of Fontbonne University and currently is on the board of the Center for Women in Transition.

Sister Suzanne received the Heart of the Community Citizen of the Year Award from the City of Shrewsbury in 2009 and the Fontbonne University Founders Award in 2004.

>> Advocating for seniors

• Catholic Charities of St. Louis Advocacy Department addresses the social conditions for clients, including people served by Cardinal Ritter Senior Services. It advocates at the state and federal level for the poor and vulnerable and teaches Catholic how to put their faith into action. For information, visit www.stlouisreview.com/jNL.

• The Missouri Catholic Conference Citizens' Network also advocates for senior issues in the halls of the state capitol and provides notices when key votes are pending in the state legislature or U.S. Congress. For information, visit www.mocatholic.org or call (800) 456-1679.

• Contact Cardinal Ritter Senior Services at (314) 951-8000 or at www.cardinalritterseniorservices.org. For information on the Foster Grandparent Program, call (314) 918-2297. Information on volunteering is available at www.stlouisreview.com/jNM or by contacting Michele Prevedel at (314) 961-8000 ext 1317 or by email at mprevedel@crssstl.org. 

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