Charlene Bartliff was at a café in Atlanta when she received an invitation to attend an event at a spa.

But it wasn’t just any spa event. It was an event put on by the Beauty Becomes You Foundation, a nonprofit organization in the Atlanta area that organizes day-long spa experiences for seniors. These events take place at various nursing homes, community centers or senior centers in the Atlanta area.

These events not only offer beauty services and massages to seniors, but these events are always free.

Bartliff ended up going to the spa. She got a facial.

“It was the best experience,” Bartliff said. “I feel good when I go there.”

Bartliff is one of the many people whose lives have been touched by this foundation.

How it Started

Since its inception in 2006, Beauty Becomes You has worked with hundreds of seniors across the Atlanta area as well as other parts of the U.S., including Harlem in New York City. The foundation has around 500 volunteers ranging from massage therapists to estheticians who all share the common goal of giving needed touch and esthetics to older people in the community.

The objective of the organization holds a much deeper meaning than merely addressing esthetics.

“This is about making someone feel worthwhile lifelong,” Alison O’Neil, the organization’s founder, said. She was recently honored with the 2015 L’Oreal Paris Women of Worth award for her positive impact and service to the community.

O’Neil has more than 30 years of experience in the medical esthetics and esthetic rehabilitation field. “The value of human appearance isn’t about vanity—it’s about identity.”

O’Neil’s passion for the elderly began early in her life and became more apparent when she grew older, and her dad got cancer. She took care of him during that time, but there is one specific moment that shaped the trajectory of her life.

Her dad was working in the garden one day, planting flowers, when he called her over and said, Ali, come here. He kept looking at the flowers and after a few minutes he said, Alison, beauty becomes you.

Six weeks after that event her dad died. Those words stayed with Alison, and someone told her it would be a nice name for a charity. She thought about the idea for a while and thought that perhaps she would create a charity, but she didn’t think, at first, that it would focus on seniors.

About a year after her dad died, O’Neil was walking around a senior center. They showed her the different rooms, the gardening center, a room for Alzheimer’s patients, and one caught her eye.

Whereas all the other rooms were brightly lit, this room was completely in the dark like it hadn’t been used in a long time. She recalls seeing shampoo bottles and a manicure and pedicure stand that was shoved in the corner.

She asked why it was in the dark. “They said, ‘This is the favorite of our members, and it’s sad because we don’t have any staff right now.’”

That was when Alison realized she could positively impact the senior community. She wanted to bring beauty to seniors in a positive way so she started her foundation.

Aging in the U.S.

According to the 2014 U.S. Statistics via the Administration on Aging, the most current census on population growth in the U.S., people aged 65 or older make up 46.2 million of the U.S. population, which is roughly 14.5% of the population, or “one in every seven Americans.”

By 2060, the expected population growth for people older than 65 is expected to more than double.

“What he [her dad] said led me to believe that what people do becomes beauty,” she said. “It’s not what they look like.”

At first, O’Neil said, the original goal of the foundation was to understand the value and importance that esthetics plays in the way people feel about themselves. Over time the goal shifted to focus on something called “failure to thrive syndrome.”

This syndrome happens when people, regardless of age, aren’t touched.

Failure to thrive syndrome became known in the early 1960s, she said, when researchers studied babies in hospitals. The researchers found that these babies thrived when touched and grew panicky and upset when they didn’t receive the proper touch.

It was later that researchers found out that this phenomenon also extended to the elderly who lived in nursing homes. Oftentimes, people in nursing homes have lost family members or spouses and have spent a lot of time, in their old age, in isolation.

Sometimes, O’Neil said, moving to an unfamiliar location like a nursing home can be incredibly hard on seniors. They are in an environment that is new and scary, and they might not know anyone.

“It not uncommon for them to sit by the door waiting for someone to drop by,” O’Neil said.

O’Neil found that the elderly sometimes experienced a sense of loss that is reminiscent of the way they used to look when they were younger.

For instance, if someone had grown up always receiving complements about their hair, and it fell out because of chemotherapy, or about their beautiful skin, and now they have wrinkles, they might feel different about the way they view themselves in relation to their physical appearance.

It’s important to recognize and honor that loss, O’Neil said, but at the same time to make sure these individuals understand that they are valued regardless of the way they look.

That’s where a positive touch from a massage therapist or an esthetician plays such an important role in the foundation.

“It’s the most beautiful thing to witness when someone has one or two professionals massaging them or touching them in a gentle and caring way,” O’Neil said. “It’s touch—that energetic touch—that you witness that everyone in these professions provides when they care for someone.”

How Touch Helps

Vanessa Cortez is a massage therapist who has volunteered at one of the foundation’s events. She has been a massage therapist for fifteen years. She started her massage career when she was 21, and now she is a 36-years-old mother with four girls. She has worked in amazing spas, but now she has her own business.

She started volunteering with Beauty Becomes You because she wanted to make a positive impact on the senior community.

“I’ve done volunteer work at nursing homes before, and I love working with the elderly,” she said. “I especially love giving massages because they have constant aches and pains.”

As a massage therapist, Cortez is interested in helping her clients realize the potential they have for managing their own self-care. At the beginning of one of the events, she taught some of the elderly a muscle release stretch to lengthen and strengthen their muscles.

“I told them, if you do these stretches you might not be in so much pain and might be able to sleep [more comfortably],” Cortez said.

Some of the people were on Social Security, or had tight incomes, and she knew that they might not be able to afford getting a massage. Cortez encouraged them and said, “If you do your stretches you may not need to [get a massage].”

Others have worked closely with O’Neil in an effort to make her vision of helping the elderly become a reality. Volunteers play a key role in organizing these events.

Martha Fortson, an administrative assistant in the Atlanta area, has worked with O’Neil to organize several events for the foundation. She tries to organize events twice a year.

The positive effects of this program were easy for Fortson to spot.

“The sense of love was priceless,” Fortson said. “I saw the affect after the program had left. They were on their toes for days over the fact that they had gotten their nails done.”

When Fortson retires, she plans to continue to have a positive impact on the senior community by helping in whatever way she can. She would also love to continue working with O’Neil to help the senior community.

Josie Selassie has worked with the foundation as well. She assisted during the day by coordinating with the volunteers and letting them know where to go. She volunteered at a few events for the foundations.

“The experience was breathtaking,” she said. “The older adults can really feel pampered. You can see the smiles on the older people’s faces and some of those things they haven’t experienced in years. The touch and beauty is overwhelming and beautiful to see.”

She isn’t involved in the spa or massage field, but she has worked in elder care for the last 11 years. She said that the care and respect that each member, and volunteer, brings to the program is what makes it so memorable.

In the future, O’Neil hopes to continue the mission of the foundation to help as many seniors feel as beautiful as possible—inside and out.

“Being a person of worth is something that is lifelong and never stops being important to people,” she said. “It’s amazing platform to serve others.”

With the help of others in the massage and beauty fields, she feels confident that the foundation will continue to grow and positively contribute to the community.

Regardless of all her success, O’Neil said that it is easy to get discouraged. When that happens, she listens to the little voice in her head that whispers, This is why you are here.

“It takes a great deal to continue believing in something,” O’Neil said. “You get back what you give.”


About the Author

Hannah Fell is the Online & Associate Editor for MASSAGE Magazine.