Seniors Afield

By Brent Frazee | August 1, 2023
From Missouri Conservationist: August 2023
Woman in a hunting blind
Seniors Afield

Bessie Hume isn’t your ordinary rookie deer hunter.

When you’re 93 and you live in a nursing home, people take notice when you say you want to go deer hunting for the first time.

Maybe that’s why Bessie was treated like Queen for a Day when she joined four other senior citizens for a special hunt last fall arranged by Baptist Homes and Health Care Ministries and the National Deer Association.

The goal of the organizers was to provide nursing home residents with one of those “you’re-never-too-old” experiences in the Missouri Ozarks.

Some had been deer hunters in an earlier life, but thought they were too old to get back in the woods now. Others, like Bessie, had never tried it but were open to it.

“I was eating lunch one day and Pam (Workman, administrator of the Ozark home where Bessie lives) came up to me and said, ‘Bessie, I’d like to see you for a minute.’ I thought, oh, no, what have I done?” Bessie recalled.

“But she handed me this paper with information about the deer hunt and asked me if I would like to give it a try. At first, I didn’t know if I could do it — if I could hold up for the day. But then, I thought, why not?”

Others took a similar leap of faith when recruited for the special deer hunt. The deer season is often a topic of conversation in the nursing home once fall arrives. But this was a chance to get back into the game in a highly supervised situation.

“We wanted this to be a cross-generational experience,” said Dr. Rodney Harrison, president and CEO of Baptist Homes and Healthcare Ministries, who came up with the idea.

“Not only did we reactivate some hunters, but we also gave them a chance to interact with their younger mentors — to tell stories about their younger days. Deer hunting is a big deal in the Ozarks, and we wanted to give them a chance to be a part of it again.”

Bessie’s Story

The deer hunt wasn’t totally out of Bessie’s realm of comfort. She still has wonderful memories of the days she and her dad would go squirrel hunting in the Ozarks.

She loved being in the outdoors, and she took pride in helping put food on the table.

“I hunted with a .22 and I got pretty good at it,” she said with pride.

But deer hunting? With a crossbow? A weapon she never knew existed before the hunt?

“I almost got cold feet,” she said.

But that changed after the hunters took target practice and Bessie consistently hit the mark.

“She’s now known as Bull’s-eye Bessie,” Workman said.

Bessie and her mentor were transported to a nearby farm where a landowner had granted access for the day. They settled into a well-camouflaged ground blind and Bessie could feel the magic of the woods revitalize her.

They sat quietly and watched for deer. And they saw several in the distance. But none were close enough for Bessie to get a shot.

That was only a slight disappointment for the 93-year-old widow, who once lived in Branson with her husband. She was back in the game.

Workman told her, “You need a t-shirt that says, ‘Officially a deer hunter.’”

Bessie giggled.

“Everyone treated me like a queen. I couldn’t have asked for a better day.”

Origins of the Hunt

That’s what Harrison imagined when he came up with the idea for the hunt.

It was a way to restore dignity for the senior citizens living in the Baptist Homes care facilities. They often felt forgotten and alone in their daily lives.

This was a way to provide hope in a controlled setting. And he knew the mentors — members of the National Deer Association and other experienced hunters — would get just as much out of the hunts as the seniors would.

He knew that through personal experience. He remembers deer hunting with his dad during his teenage years when they lived in California. It was a much-anticipated experience for a boy who grew up reading Outdoor Life and Sports Afield, but the deer failed to show up for the hunt.

Many years later, after Harrison’s parents moved to Missouri and Harrison and his family relocated there, too, Harrison invited his dad to another father-son deer hunt.

Harrison’s father shot his first deer, an 8-point buck, and the emotions flowed.

“To see the emotion, the joy, on his face really touched me,” Harrison said. “He talked about it constantly. Pretty soon, I was hearing from people in our church and our pastor. ‘Hey, I heard your dad took a nice buck.’ I thought, wouldn’t it be great to replicate that for the residents in our homes?”

Baptist Homes and Healthcare Ministries oversees nine nursing homes or senior-care facilities throughout Missouri. But Harrison wanted to start slowly in getting the hunts implemented.

The first took place Sept. 15, the first day of Missouri’s archery deer season, at the Baptist Home of Arcadia Valley campus in Ironton.

Five senior citizens signed up for the crossbow hunt, but unseasonably warm weather affected deer movement, and no one was able to shoot a deer.

The second crossbow hunt took place in late October near the Ozark Baptist Home, also resulting in no deer being taken.

But to most of the participants, that mattered little. They at least could call themselves deer hunters.

“We heard a lot of touching stories,” said Cheyne Matzenbacher, a deer outreach specialist for the National Deer Association, who helped plan the hunts. “We had one guy who had a stroke and was in a wheelchair. We made sure he had an extra-large blind for him and his wife to sit in.

“A man that I mentored at the Ozark hunt had a couple shoulder, knee, and hip replacements. He told us he was just falling apart. But he loved to deer hunt, and he didn’t think he would ever be able to do it again. He was so grateful just to get out.”

A Crash Course on Deer Hunting

The hunts were highly structured. Labeled as a Field to Fork program, they covered all aspects of the hunt.

During an education session, representatives with the National Deer Association and the Missouri Department of Conservation talked about how hunting fits into conservation, deer biology, hunting etiquette, and shot placement. Licenses were also checked.

A venison lunch was served, then the hunters had a supervised practice session at the range with their crossbows and listened to talks about safety.

After a break, hunters and their mentors were transported to their blinds.

“We wanted to make the blinds accessible,” Matzenbacher said. “A lot of our hunters used canes or walkers to get around, so we had to make sure they could get there without much difficulty.”

Promoting Deer Hunting

The National Deer Association is devoted to the three R’s — recruiting, retaining, and reactivating deer hunters.

It met all three when it helped with the Baptist Homes deer hunts.

Fred Davis, 91, who lives in the Arcadia Valley nursing home, was one of the participants who was reactivated.

A longtime pastor, he began deer hunting when one of the members of his church invited him to hunt on his farm. That began a long friendship and hunting tradition.

“I hunted on that fella’s farm for 30 years,” Davis said. “He had so many deer on his places, his crops were just getting eaten up. He wanted us to take does so that he could thin down the deer numbers. And we were happy to oblige.”

Eventually, the years caught up with Davis and he quit deer hunting. But when this opportunity came along, he was eager to participate.

“I thought my deer hunting days were over,” he said. “But this gave me a chance.”

Davis and his mentor didn’t see deer. But Davis, who previously lived in Batesville, Ark., did get to shoot a crossbow for the first time, and he was proud of the results.

“I shot at the target four times, and I hit the bull’s-eye every time,” he said. “I wish I could have run into one of the deer I see all the time on my walks. I’ll see as many as five or six deer some days.”

Nonetheless, Davis said it was great to be a deer hunter again. And others who participated felt the same way.

“We heard from seniors who called their family and said, ‘You’ll never believe what I did today. I went deer hunting,’” Harrison said. “We are thrilled with the way things went. We’re already planning future hunts. We hope to turn this into a tradition.”

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Magazine Manager - Stephanie Thurber
Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Associate Editor - Larry Archer
Photography Editor - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek
Staff Writer – Dianne Van Dien
Designer - Shawn Carey
Designer - Marci Porter
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner