The best retirement home chaplains cannot be all things to all residents, nor can they provide an authentic religious experience outside their own tradition. They should not try. Good chaplains help residents stay connected with their faith tradition through life, aging, dying and being buried.
Congregations are best equipped to give the spiritual care people need. A Roman Catholic retirement home resident yearns for Eucharist, an Episcopalian responds deeply to the words and cadence of the Book of Common Prayer, a Baptist sings the hymns of her childhood, while a Jew longs to hear prayers in Hebrew. Pentecostals may not recognize traditional Protestant worship, but will echo the chaplain’s prayer saying, “yes Jesus, yes Lord, yes yes.” Such words are surprising to a Presbyterian pastor used to leading a prayer in silence.
I remember Frances, a secular Jewish woman in the nursing home where I was chaplain, breaking out in a big smile when the visiting rabbi asked her Hebrew name and offered to pray with her. He began in Hebrew and she closed her eyes and said the words with him. He ministered in her heart-language and theology in ways no Christian chaplain ever will.
Prayer and worship in a retirement community is by nature and necessity personal and diverse. An executive director may begin her staff meetings praying, “Wow, wow, wow, God.” Chapel programs are conducted in a variety of settings and styles. Chaplains, ministers, rabbis, other faith leaders and volunteers visit the sick and sit with families at the bedside of the dying.
Our Presbyterian retirement homes are ecumenical in character, welcoming a broad range of Protestants, Catholics, Jews and more. Further, prayer and worship are growing more diverse as the baby boomers begin to retire and move in. Baby boomers are different from their parents or older siblings, often more secular, always asking for what they want.
Residents have different theologies, practices, styles and even worship different gods. In a pluralistic world we cannot assume anyone is from any expected religious background.
In addition to varying theologies and faith backgrounds, medical conditions and generational experiences shape residents’ prayer life and spiritual needs. For example, someone in her 80s or 90s today came of age in a world before Vatican II and changes to both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. A resident with dementia may know all the verses to gospel hymns, even if he can’t remember where he is. Older adults likely prayed in public school more often than Sunday school. Many Protestants learned Bible verses by heart, while Catholics learned catechism and worshipped with a priest chanting in Latin. The religion formed in their hearts is quite different from the way we practice now and those who pray with them benefit from knowledge of their experience and expectations.
Here are some ways chaplains and retirement communities are addressing the wide ranging spiritual needs of their residents:
Achim Daffin, a Presbyterian pastor, helped develop the prayer garden at The Village in Summerville, South Carolina. It has a winding path and a number of “stations” where one can stop to rest, pray and meditate. Some of the locations within the prayer garden are commemorative — honoring nurses, a deceased employee and worshippers who were killed at the Mother Emmanuel Church in nearby Charleston.
At a Roman Catholic community in Jacksonville, Florida, a retired priest takes satisfaction from still being able to celebrate Mass and have people who seek the sacrament and his counsel.
At the Kirkwood Presbyterian retirement community near Birmingham, Alabama, the centering prayer group from a local Episcopal church comes to meet. Two men join the group in prayer, one Protestant and the other Catholic. “Probably the most significant thing I do related to prayer is that at the end of each Bible study, even in memory care, I ask a volunteer to close with prayer. I am deeply touched and moved by the spiritual depth and maturity reflected in those prayers – and the profundity and even beauty of those prayers.” said Richard Hanna, a chaplain at Kirkwood. “From your mouth and our hearts to God’s ear,” he says to them.
Music is probably the most significant way that folks who appear to be unresponsive seem to come alive and begin singing the wonderful hymns of our faith. “The memory of hymns is one of the last things to go,” said Hanna.
At Westminster Communities of Florida there is a “No One Dies Alone” program. It trains and provides volunteers from among residents, staff and churches to sit with the dying. Residents are asked their preferences for the end of their life. Usually someone sits with them, often praying and reading the Bible, silently or aloud. Sometimes this is respite care so family members may grab a meal, shower or few hours of sleep; other times it is a long vigil at the bedside of someone without family members present. That room becomes a holy place.
A class in “quantum spirituality” was taught this fall by a retired pastor at Westminster Suncoast in St. Petersburg, Florida. It appealed to those who embrace the depths of science as part of their faith journey. Others found a fresh appreciation for the element of “mystery” when it comes to spirituality. The class looked at the dynamics of human energy on a subatomic level, asking how this plays a part in prayer, faith, love, healing and disease. “We discussed: What in quantum theory substantiates the power of prayer even if separated by thousands of miles? This course both enthralled some residents… and raised many questions of others,” said Steve Coss, a United Methodist chaplain.
Congregations also provide a myriad of ministries in retirement homes. Choirs of adults and children sing while volunteers come to share stories, listen, lead art projects and call bingo. Churches loan their buses so that low-income seniors can go shopping or visit museums. First Presbyterian Church of Orlando, Florida (now a congregation of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church), has been providing a monthly communion service at a skilled nursing center for decades. Their deacons and ministers have developed longstanding friendships with residents, some of whom are members of the church but most just benefit from their ministry of word and sacrament.
It is a privilege to be chaplain at a retirement home, assisted living or skilled nursing facility. Residents are always glad to see me. It may be because I do not require anything of them. While other staff members insist a resident bathe, finish their meal, swallow a pill or exercise, I let them set the agenda. Many want me to say a prayer, a Bible verse or a kind word. Others need counsel and comfort as they grieve. Still others shun any talk of organized religion, but welcome a chaplain’s visit if it is on their terms.
After serving in a retirement home for a long time, a chaplain has time to get to know residents and can provide for their specific needs, even if they can no longer express their desire or remember what it was. The chaplain who knew a resident when she was sharp can give personalized care if dementia clouds her thoughts. Ministry deepens with longevity.
Hospital visits are a great way for chaplains to get to know their residents. One of the first things I ask when I sit in the hospital with a resident is about his or her faith community. If a patient is connected with one, I adjust my visit according to his faith practice and call or text his faith leader immediately. Many of the local churches and synagogues are on my speed dial. They need to know their member is in the hospital.
I visited a resident in the hospital who I knew to be skeptical at best, and probably hostile to all organized Christianity. So my visit focused on her and listening to her story. When the visit came to a natural end I stood up, smiled and wished her well. She came back to the community raving about her chaplain, “He didn’t even try to force a prayer on me.” A few years later she began sitting in the back of the room for Bible study. She likes a chaplain who respects her.
For residents with mild or moderate dementia I developed a style of preaching similar to call-and-response. I could start a Bible verse and they could usually finish it. “Now, Jesus said, ‘For God so loved … ” and residents could always finish “… the world, that hat he gave his only begotten son.” Or I could start, “The Lord is my …” and residents could finish the entire 23rd Psalm. We talked together about what they could remember.
One Good Friday I was preaching on the crucifixion and came to Jesus’ words, “My God, My God, why have your forsaken me?” Many in my little congregation in the nursing facility’s multipurpose room looked asleep. I asked, “Do you ever feel forsaken?” Every face looked up at me and even those who could not speak nodded. I felt guilty and doubled my efforts to be their chaplain, yet I was also amazed at the Bible’s ability to give voice to their feelings. Clearly, the role of the chaplain in residential retirement communities is important.
However, living in an interfaith and ecumenical community is complex and, at times, difficult. When people from different Christian denominations gather for Bible study or prayer they bring different expectations. Residents come with a wide variety of backgrounds and also of mental, physical and spiritual needs. The more the chaplain knows about each person, their faith background and personal stories, the better he or she is equipped to care for them and connect them with the resources best suited to their needs. Nonetheless, the chaplain cannot do this alone.
To that end, at Westminster Communities of Florida we strive to keep residents involved in their faith community for as long as possible. Our chaplains and volunteers are there to facilitate connections with one’s church or synagogue. At one retirement community, seven church buses pull up on Sunday to take residents to six Protestant and one Roman Catholic church. There are car pools to some churches and to the synagogue on holy days. Residents drive themselves to worship around the city; sometimes adult children or grandchildren come get their mom for church. Other retirement communities use their own bus and driver to take residents to church and synagogue.
Chapel and vesper services are offered to supplement (not replace) weekly worship. A mid-week service can be a wonderful bonus for some and provides Christian worship for those who are mobility-challenged.
Other communities have different models. There may be a congregation on campus that attracts worshippers from among residents, staff, families and the neighborhood. In other models the chaplain becomes the primary pastor, even burying a resident when requested. Still other communities rely solely on area pastors and volunteers for their spiritual program. Across the denomination there are many retirement communities and a variety of models of worship and prayer.
No matter the model, congregations who work in conjunction with retirement community chaplains are best equipped to meet the spiritual needs of our members in retirement homes. That’s why it is so important that we remember them, visit them, pray with them and let our older friends teach us about living and dying.
Walk Jones is a chaplain and director of church relations at Westminster Communities of Florida, a member organization of Presbyterian Homes and Services for the Aging.