I have had older adults in each congregation I’ve served. I have loved and cared for parishioners who have faced terminal illnesses or have suffered severe physical trauma or those whose bodies have worn down over the years so that they needed some extra care.
Early on, even as I was still discerning God’s call upon my life, I worked in a church in Indiana where one of my main roles was visiting the “shut-ins” of the church — of which there were about 100. And so I went and prayed by the side of the stroke victim, trying to let her know that I was there and that God loved her. I heard the story of a “no-fail pie crust” (made with a pound of lard) from one elder every week–an elder who had taught actor James Dean how to dance. I went to the underfunded VA nursing home as one of the elders told me about how he lost his leg and showed me, throughout the summer, some of his medals.
Yet, in the grand scheme of things, care for elders was always just a small part of my job description. And, over the thirteen years in Girdwood before moving to Seward, it was an even smaller part of the job. There just weren’t that many elders connected to our church. While there were some “retirees,” the general population was younger and healthier than I had experienced in other settings.
In my present ministry setting, however, there is a nursing home. It’s a remarkable place really. Unlike some of the places I visited 25 years ago, the “houses” here have a much more “homey” feel to them. Instead of smelling like Pine-Sol or bleach they smell like whatever was served at the last homestyle meal. Instead of beings sparcely decorated, they take on each holiday season with gusto. And personal rooms feel a whole lot more personal than my prior experiences. In short, while it’s still an institution, it feels a whole lot less “institutional.” That’s a good thing. It’s a welcome thing.
One Sunday every month I’ve been taking my turn at leading worship for the elders. It’s a far different kind of service. Yes, the numbers are small. But it’s clear that there are differing abilities among the elders, with different levels of participation. Some are able to sing along with the old hymns and are able to lift up prayers or respond to questions asked during the “sermon.” And others have a more difficult time responding or may not be able to respond at all. For someone who feeds off of the “interaction” of worship, it has been a learning experience. I often note how tired I am after leading this monthly service because of the energy I put into it.
But, I’ve learned much more filling in every once in a while for the regular chaplain at the facility. I’m doing that now for a three-week period and I try to get over to the home and visit the four residential buildings every couple of days. I’ve worked out a routine; checking in with the main office and going to each of the four lodges/homes. Even though I have a badge that allows me access, when I get into a lodge I usually introduce myself as “Your friendly, neighborhood substitute chaplain” so people know who I am. I’m can still be an unfamiliar face to workers and I want them to know that it’s OK that I”m there. I first ask the caregivers if there are any concerns that I should address and then I try to visit with the elders who are up and about. Some may be watching TV or eating. In the morning several read the paper. And, often, some of the less communicative elders are sitting in the commons areas, maybe in wheel chairs or on couches. I try to make some small talk. I try to pray with a few folks.
While I would not say that this is a “difficult” process, I have learned that it takes a shift in my own pride. I know enough about myself to know that I love positive feedback from the people I serve. Years ago a pastor once said to me, “Don’t think for a minute that your desire for affirmation isn’t one of the reasons you become a pastor.” And, in this setting, there are “visits” where I don’t get affirmation and sometimes don’t even get any external signs that my visit was meaningful or appreciated. It has been a good experience to give to these elders knowing that the “benefit” I get out of it will be different.
It’s also been a learning experience for my sense of pastoral identity. Like many pastors I look at the world with an eye for the needs that are there and I find utility in meeting those needs and proclaiming the Kingdom in the midst of it. While I’m not a numbers person I like to see results (e.g more people being fed, more youth growing in Christ, more attendees at the Bible study). “Results” are different as a nursing home chaplain. While there are visits where I can feel like I made a positive difference, where persons appreciated the fact that I was there, where I provided some comfort or guidance…there are many visits where I feel useless and I’m left wondering if I made a difference at all.
And, you know what, I really don’t thing that’s a bad thing. For it’s when I can’t rely upon myself and can’t rely upon a response from the person I’m ministering to or with that I need to rely upon Christ.
These elders are helping me recognize my need for our Savior more and more. And these visits are helping me trust in God’s Spiritual presence beyond what I say or do.