By Rev. Dr. Robyn Provis
(Names have been changed for privacy.)
Her name was Astrid, and we met when I was sixteen years old. Astrid was a resident at the care home that employed me as a nursing assistant. She was a tall stately woman, completely bedridden and non-verbal. To my horror other staff would gather in her room to chat while getting her dressed or changing her linens. They seldom spoke to her or protected her privacy and that began to eat at me.
Fast forward five years when I was volunteering at the acute hospital during spring break. I was surprised to see Astrid’s name on the census for the day. Curious, I went upstairs to see if it was my Astrid. It was.
Partly to expunge my lingering guilt, I approached her bed to find her still staring blankly up at the ceiling. Not knowing if she could hear me I launched into an apology. “Astrid, my name is Robyn and I used to take care of you at the Convalescent Center. I’m now in nursing school and I want you to know that it always bothered me how you were treated. I just want to apologize to you from the bottom of my…”
I stopped cold because tears were rolling down the sides of her face! I reached out to hold her shoulder and apologized repeatedly while we both cried. I remember saying “Oh Astrid you were in there all along. I’m so sorry.” I will never know for certain, but I’d venture a guess that that day changed us both. I’ve told this story to countless nursing directors so that staff will never again take anyone’s life or care for granted.
Even in those early years, I never got tired of learning the histories of the residents. I would ask about the people in their picture frames, or where they’d grown up, or how they got to that particular city. Television couldn’t compare to the lives that fill the residences too many are afraid to visit. And that’s a shame.
I never became a nurse, but I did become a chaplain and an ELCA pastor. Those early experiences are why I still love visiting the “dearies.” Dearies was the term I learned while living in England. It’s an affectionate way of referring to the elderly. At every church I’ve ever served, visiting the dearies is a favorite activity. I love bringing a word of hope and listening to their stories. It’s definitely a relationship of mutuality. Over the years I’ve marveled at how a person who no longer knows their own name or recognizes their loved ones always remembers the words to the Lord’s Prayer! They also still remember the words to the old hymns.
I’ve visited with dearies so hard of hearing that I had to bring conversation starters written out on big pieces of paper. Then all I had to do was sit back and listen to them tell me the story of their lives. One sweet lady was approaching 100 years old. I learned she had once worked as a manicurist. She related the story of doing the nails of a young bride about to spend her honeymoon on the Titanic! I quickly wrote on my paper, “But did she make it home?” “Yes,” she reported. Whew!
Jim was a marvel to visit with. He had been at Pearl Harbor, in the water, rescuing the sailors from the U.S.S. Arizona. His reflections on family, church, faith and the Navy were precious. He worked as the church janitor until he was 90 when he was moved to a memory care facility.
Another favorite dearie was 100 year old Thelma. She had no memory or cognitive deficiencies until a week before her death. She was an endless source of church and city history. When I complimented her on her quick mind, she corrected me saying, “Oh no Pastor, I hallucinate all the time. Every night I have to step around thorns and brambles to get to the bathroom. But I tell myself that they are not really there and so far, God hasn’t let me get hurt!” she laughed. During another visit I discovered that she had a collection of funeral bulletins dating back twenty years, where she’d marked all her favorite parts and hymns. Just before Thelma died she was transferred to a hospice facility run by nuns. A tiny 5 foot sister pulled me aside to tell me that they always lift new residents into a whirlpool bath when they arrive. She said the entire place smiled when Thelma began to loudly sing all the words to “In the Garden,” having no awareness the entire hallway could hear her.
Visitation is too precious not to share and often too large a task for the pastor to do alone. Here are some ideas to share a special ministry to your member residents of nursing homes or shut-ins:
- Gather the records of any members living in continuing care facilities. Plot out their locations to get an idea of how spread out they are. Often families travel considerable distances to place their loved ones in a suitable home. Also find out who used to attend but is now living at home. Ask during announcements if there might be family members the church isn’t aware of.
- Make a plan and a schedule to visit and get to know them. Have portable communion sets to take with you and be sure to let them know that these were blessed during worship and that they are still a beloved part of the community.
Bring Others Along:
- Take interested members with you to visit the dearies. Once they’ve had the experience, you can train up a group to spread out the love.
- Talk to older members who still attend to ask them about the people on your list. They may know some things that would be helpful. A member told of how Evelyn’s hair had always been long and tied up in an elegant French roll and that she loved birds. When I visited Evelyn I brought a silk bird with me as a conversation starter, and I helped her with her hair. It’s those little things that matter as much as these beloved ones matter.
- Bring photos from the congregation. Showing photos of members from either a current directory, or on your phone, or in the newsletter gives them a chance to feel included and to ask questions. I often announced who I’d be visiting that week so that I could bring personal greetings such as “Ida said to be sure to say hello to you.”
Encourage More Occasions for Interaction:
- Occasionally bring a small group and set up a lunch or dinner with a resident. Care facilities will let others join them in the dining room with advance notice. This is especially wonderful if the resident used to enjoy lunches out with her church friends.
- Coordinate with the Sunday School to bring young people to visit. Make visiting the dearies a part of confirmation programs. Some of the longest lasting relationships are when young people form a friendship with one of these care facility residents.
- Note: if a friendship blossoms with a young person, be especially mindful when the resident dies. The young person may attend the service and hug the wall in discomfort. Consider talking to the young person about how they are feeling and offer to accompany them to the casket. It’s an important opportunity to discuss the cycle of life and the sacredness of death.
- During the holidays, bring all age groups of carolers in to visit and sing. If you live in a large metropolitan area, don’t visit too many facilities in one day. Schedule multiple visits so there is time to visit with the residents.
- Always have your camera with you. Ask to take a photo so that you can share it in the church newsletter. When space permits, interview these residents and feature a photo and story. This goes a long way to build community, especially for the newer members who don’t know the others who no longer attend. It’s also an honor for the care home resident to be important enough to be featured in the church newsletter.
- Take video interviews and invite the dearies to give temple talks you can share in church. Keeping them close to our hearts which will let them know they matter.
Finally, one of the most challenging elements of congregational life today is that we have multiple congregations in one. Folks don’t always attend weekly meaning that you can go weeks before catching all your friends. This is especially true of the dearies whom we never see. Even as these future Saints in Light are seeing the horizon of their lives approach, they are every bit still members of our communities. Caring for them is integral to who and whose we are.
About the Author
Rev. Dr. Robyn Provis is an intentional interim pastor serving in Morro Bay, CA. She has served congregations as an interim and as a settled pastor in Colorado, Texas, Minnesota, Ohio and California. She lives with a strong willed Shih Tzu named Archie and an overbearing calico cat named Calliope Louise.
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