Wishes for the Elderly: Nonprofits Make Dreams Come True

Wishes for the Elderly: Non-Profits Make Dreams Come True

Sitting at the controls of an airplane this summer, John Follmer got a rush he hadn't felt in 40 years.

"It was so relaxed," the 86-year-old father of six told ABCNews.com. "It was like you had control of everything."

Follmer's trip into the skies was one of thousands of elderly wishes fulfilled by a network of nonprofit organizations that put together trips, parties or basic supplies for older people who can't afford to make their own dreams come true.

P.K. Beville founded Second Wind Dreams -- the nonprofit that sent Follmer up in a Cessna -- in 1997, after helping 92-year-old female twins who wanted a happy hour at their nursing home that included an Elvis impersonator.

"It was a scream," Beville told ABCNews.com. "That then led me to begin doing it all over the place."

Based in Georgia, Second Wind Dreams fulfills, on average, two wishes a day across the country and in Canada. Recipients must be receiving eldercare through a facility with a membership to the organization.

They've opened libraries in nursing homes, arranged for rides on a fire truck and made someone a police officer for a day. One woman, at nearly 100 years old, got to don a pink leather jacket and hop on a motorcyle.

Several years ago, Second Wind Dreams organized a camel ride for a woman in Joliet, Ill.

"She just has always loved seeing them in the circus and in movies," Beville said. "'Lawrence of Arabia' is one of her favorite movies."

So with the help of a local police department that located a camel in Wisconsin, the woman was treated to a ride on the nursing home grounds. The camel then took a tour of the oustide of the facility and looked in on bedridden residents from their windows, prompting some calls from concerned family members who were convinced their loved ones were hallucinating.

While some wishes bring smiles to the faces of volunteers, others can bring tears.

Volunteers with the Pennsylvania-based Twilight Wish Foundation are raising money to send 84-year-old Joe Burch back to Omaha Beach in Normandy, where the World War II Army veteran landed with his troops on D-Day. He was 17 at the time.

A member of the 82nd Airborne Division, "I was the second out of the plane when we parachuted in," he told ABCNews.com. Burch was wounded after landing in enemy territory, earning him a purple heart.

He wants to see the place that was torn apart by war while it is at peace.

"I'd like to go back to see how it is now," he said.

Burch, now a resident at the Park Health Nursing Home in St. Clairsville, Ohio, was discharged in 1945 but signed up for two more four-year stints and served in the Korean War. Burch said he knows some people call him a hero, and "I think it's good."

But with $3,500 more to raise to send Burch to France, his trip will have to wait.

"They're doing a great job," he said of the Twilight Wish Foundation. "I was ready to go in September when they told me, but they said they didn't have enough money to send me."

Fulfilling Dreams Big and Small

Twighlight founder and Executive Director Cass Forkin said the organization describes requests like Burch's "one more time" wishes. Many in that category simply want one more day to do their old job again, like the former teacher who got to go back into the classroom for a day or the retired postal carrier who got to retrace his route.

Others want to meet their favorite celebrities. Last year, 94-year-old Percy Swanson got to meet the woman he'd had a crush on since 1982 -- "Wheel of Fortune's" Vanna White.

A faithful "Wheel" watcher, Swanson got some facetime with the show's most famous personality during a taping of the show in nearby Chicago.

Twilight has fulfilled 1,175 wishes since 2004. It requires that the recipient be older than 68 with an income of less than 200 percent of poverty level.

Beville said the wishes not only brighten the days of the recipients but also change public perception about the contributions he elderly make to the community.

Years ago, Beville remembered, a Memphis man in his late 80s who said his wish was to have red beans and a beer in a local jazz cafe. As the volunteers pushed his wheelchair closer to the stage, the man was met with some grumbles from other audience members who had to move to the side.

But after watching the man struggle to stand in order to accept the band's invitation to sing a song with them, the audience quickly moved aside as the man made his way out of the bar, clapping and patting him on the back.

Follmer, who has bladder cancer, said he's one of several residents at Laurel Lake Retirement Community in Hudson, Ohio, to have his wish fulfilled. He remembered the thrilling plane rides the neighborhood children would get when a pilot would land his plane in the farm fields in his hometown of Pontiac, Ill.

Follmer said he finally got to go when he was 10 years old.

"I always wanted to fly from then on," he said.

Wish-Makers Feeling Pinch of Recession

Follmer's dream lay dormant until about 40 years ago, when he bought his own plane and began flying lessons. But after a violent windstorm destroyed his plane when he was just one lesson away from his license, Follmer gave up his dream again, this time for four decades.

The relaxed feeling Follmer remembered from the days of his flying lessons came right back, he said.

"It was great," he said, adding that while he was a little put off by the technological advancements of the plane's instruments, there was one key lesson he never forgot. "I knew one thing was to keep it level, so that's what I did."

Not all wishes, however, involve trips or celebrities. Some of the elderly wishmakers simply want food, clothes or hearing aids.

"It's a difficult year," said Forkin, who has done away with her salary as has Twilight's second full-time employee.

Beville said her company has been similarly stretched and relies heavily on in-kind and monetary donations to make wishes come true.

But that doesn't mean the women don't have big dreams to fulfill. Up next for Twilight -- getting a 70-year California woman a karaoke machine for nursing home performances, having books published, and putting an 80-year-old New York comedian on Jay Leno's stage.