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Still whole, still transformed by love

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Three chaplains talk about their work with elders

Gerhard Friesen, chaplain at Bethania Home, blesses a participant after a service.

A pianist plays familiar hymns as they gather in the chapel. Some people enter by wheelchair, others are led in with gentle slowness, through the light-filled atrium, past a tank teeming with fish and a large bird cage cheerful with finches.

The chapel is a peaceful place. On one wall is a cross, on another the words, in German, from Luke 24:29: Lord, stay with us, for it is nearly evening. A cat pads in and out as today’s participants are placed into a circle for a weekly “church” service of their own.

These are elders, and all have Alzheimer’s disease. There are 12 here today, though chaplain Gerhard Friesen tells me later that eight is ideal, for maximum eye contact.

He lights a candle, and the service begins. Twelve minutes later, it’s finished.

They have sung, said the Lord’s Prayer, and heard Scripture, a story, and a blessing. Each person has prayed and sung along as best they can, and when Gerhard comes round at the end to take a hand or touch a shoulder and speak an individual “God bless you,” some beam with recognition and gratitude.

The 12-minute service, first developed by Greencroft Communities, is based on “old memory content,” Gerhard explains over coffee in the dining room of Bethania Nursing Home, Winnipeg, where he has been chaplain for 15 years. Based on familiar songs and rituals, that is. Even though much memory is lost, or the service itself forgotten minutes later, there’s “a moment, a spiritual ‘aha’ moment” that definitely happens for participants, he says. And it’s vitally important they be given the opportunity to have it.

More than body

People are generally seen as whole persons throughout their lives, but too often at the end “it’s just body,” Gerhard says. Although our health care system does a decent job of meeting bodily needs, we need to remember elderly people are still whole. They still have spiritual needs.

Perhaps the greatest need, he says, concerns loneliness. “They sit and sit.” And they don’t just look lonely, Gerhard insists, “they feel lonely.”

They often feel undervalued, or pushed aside. They wonder, “what is my meaning for being?” They come into institutional care from a world of “doing.” Now they’re supposed to simply “be,” and it’s difficult.

Another need seniors have is to stayed connected to their own denomination or faith tradition, where they feel “at home.”

Gerhard’s role as chaplain is to attend to these, and other, spiritual needs of the home’s 145 residents. His is a unique congregation. “We usually think of a congregation losing their pastor,” he says. “I lose a third of my people every year.”
The losses are bittersweet. He gets attached and is affected by residents’ deaths, but on the other hand, he says, “I’m glad when someone can graduate to heaven. There’s something good about death.”

Gerhard is retiring this June and will miss his work as well. It’s rewarding “to journey with 145 people on their last stretch,” he says. He gets many thankyous, more than those in regular pastoral work perhaps. People “allow you into their lives in the most holy and critical moments. They allow you into their death.”

Chaplains and others trained to sit with the dying often learn to recognize the “signs” of death’s approach. They can help families and the dying person through it.

Almost like a midwife, we decide as we discuss this aspect of pastoral caregiving, like a midwife of death.

Rich histories

Chaplains in seniors’ homes also hold before staff and others an awareness of the residents’ larger lives. Wanda Derksen is chaplain at another faith-based facility connected with Winnipeg’s Mennonite community, Donwood Manor. In the regular meetings that residents’ family members have with representatives of the nursing, aide, dietary, and activity departments, Wanda attends to share the elderly person’s history – what they did, where they lived, how many children they have, and the role of faith in their lives.

There’s often no way of knowing those things when we meet people at the last stage of life, she says, but it’s important to remember that these elders have had that life, that richness; that they are more than an old body, more than a disease. When an aide is struggling to get a resident’s socks on, for example, such knowledge gives connections for a relationship.

Annie Voth, a resident of Donwood Manor.

Wanda, like Gerhard, thoroughly enjoys her work. She too emphasizes the present as well as the past – the present value of the resident, and the present unconditional love of God.

The people she serves need “active love,” she says. She gives touch and hugs. She says, “I love you. God loves you.” It reinforces that “God is with us, now,” it allows people to experience God’s love concretely through her.

Giving love and “presence” are the key themes of chaplain Erica Thiessen’s ministry to the elderly people of Menno Home in Abbotsford, B.C. as well. In a telephone interview, Erica says that spiritual care is “what gives meaning, what brings contentment and closure, a sense of peace.” Many of the residents under her care have church backgrounds, she says. She assures them repeatedly of God’s promises – “no ifs and buts.”

Although it’s a common stereotype that elders’ characters are fixed, the chaplains I interview are adamant that elderly people can, and do, change. All speak with some passion of transformations they have witnessed.

Sometimes illness produces unpleasant changes and suffering can make people angry, true, but “grace is active up to the last stages,” Gerhard says.

People respond to love, states Erica; they’re transformed through love. “We as Mennonites,” she suggests, “have neglected God’s power of love.” We remain fully human, but “the good news is, there are new starts.”

Wanda reminds that a relatively low percentage of people die in long-term care, but for those “called” to go through it, that suffering is “a very profound teacher.” Elders on that path need great courage, she says, which is why it’s important to be a spiritual companion to them as they journey.

The church’s role

The church has responsibility to its elderly members too, these chaplains agree, and in many cases could be doing more.

The church needs to discern gifts in the congregation for ministry to elders, even as they discern a youth pastor or other leader, Gerhard says, and should then see that these gifts are developed. “There are oodles of workshops and courses.”

“The elderly need their church, and the church needs their elderly,” says Wanda. She, Gerhard, and Erica, urge that churches make a commitment to the people who gave so much to the church when they were younger. They urge that church groups and families come to visit, to sing and serve – and to bring children! The chaplains say they need this additional, outside support, to provide stimulus and to care for elders.

Erica would like to see the church work on how all of us can continue to grow. “The spirit of a person doesn’t age, though it is limited by the body,” she says. She would advise visitors to emphasize love rather than judgment when they come to minister.

Chaplains change too

How does daily engagement with elders in the last stage of life affect these chaplains? Gerhard says that in spite of the decline and limitations he witnesses every day, he has no fear of getting older. “This is the best show-and-tell lesson that we’re on a journey.”

He’s come to the point, he says, that “I’m so accepting of death. I find myself frustrated when quantity [of life] counts more than quality; with this quest for longevity.” Jesus said his work was done, but today, we keep the end stage “as long as possible. And sometimes I think we do more harm than good.”

Wanda’s daily work has impacted her understanding of the importance of family, especially as elders become dependent on their children. “Relationships are so important. I need to be careful how I treat the people in my life.”
“I look at people who face the ups and downs of aging with grace,” says Erica, “and that’s what I want to do. It means paying attention to the areas in my life where I need to grow.”

Dora Dueck is MB Herald interim editor.

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