It was May of 2006, two days before Mother's Day, when a sad epiphany struck Jane Miller. The Howell resident was working at a Monmouth County retirement community when she noticed one of the residents had spent the entire day in the lobby.
"The woman was sitting there watching bouquets being brought in for anybody but her,'' Miller said. "It bothered me to no end."
Finally, in the late afternoon, Miller asked the resident if she was OK.
"She said, 'I don't have any family,'" Miller recalled. "I'm just enjoying watching all these flowers come in."
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The woman was an "elder orphan" -- someone who is aging alone, with no family available. AARP estimates more than one in five Americans older than 65 are elder orphans or at risk of becoming one. Given the unprecedented size of the Baby Boomer generation and ever-increasing longevity rates, that means there could be 10 million elder orphans in the U.S. right now.
"It broke my heart." Miller said, recalling that encounter in the lobby. "It just nagged at me."
So she decided to do something about it. The next Mother's Day Miller visited a friend in a nursing home and brought an additional bouquet for another woman there who had no family.
A movement was born.
A 'healing quality'
On Thursday, a little bit of magic happened at Brandywine Senior Living in Howell. Activity director Amy Schneider gathered nine female residents for a special presentation in the sitting room next to the lobby. These women, Schneider explained later, were unlikely to receive visitors on Mother's Day. But they had visitors on this day -- four strangers who handed each of them a bouquet of flowers and a wrapped gift.
"It's wonderful to have people who truly care coming here," Schneider said. "It comes from the heart, this generosity. The thought, it's just incredible."
The visitors -- Howell moms Lori Cochrane, Wendy Frieswick Pacheco, Wendy Delena, plus Delena's young son Aaron -- were performing this good deed as part of Miller's movement. It now has name, "No Forgotten Women," with roughly 400 adherents across the country.
"When I originally started promoting it, the idea was if you want to honor women who are no longer with us, donate flowers to someone else on Mother's Day," said Miller, who lost her mom in 2000. "I and a lot of women have found there is a certain healing quality to this. There are a lot of us who have lost their mother."
The movement is wonderfully elastic. There are groups delivering carloads of flowers to senior living communities like Brandywine and Preferred Care at Wall. And there are folks like a woman in Washington, D.C. who reached out to Miller via Facebook just a few days ago, wondering how they can get involved. Miller's response: Deliver flowers to one woman who might not get them this weekend.
"You can do as much or as little as your time and your resources allow," Miller said.
'It's very touching'
The women who delivered the flowers to Brandywine, what brought them there?
"I'm a mother myself, of four," Cochrane said. "There might come a day when they won't be around and I'll have somebody else come do this possibly for me if I'm ever lonely or need a smile on my face."
Added Delena, "I do it because it's important to celebrate women, and it fills your heart with joy if you can bring a little bit of love to someone else's day."
The recipients' gratitude, and surprise, was palpable.
"It's a shock," said Ellen Singler, 75, a retired teacher. "They don't know me, but they are being so kind."
Dolores Locascio, an 86-year-old retired nurse, couldn't wait to get the flowers up to her room.
"It's very touching," she said.
It should be noted that "No Forgotten Women" extends beyond Mother's Day. Members distributed hundreds of gift bags to senior citizens during December's holiday season, and some perform such acts of kindness year-round. But the idea of filling a void on Mother's Day, one that Miller so painfully observed in that lobby 12 years ago, seems particularly poignant. In an aging country, it's vital.
"Society tends to focus on the young," Miller said. "What this all boils down to is acknowledgement that someone acknowledges you. On Mother's Day, no woman should be without flowers."