Ministry to the Elderly: The Joys and Challenges
Who are the Elderly?
When you were a pre-teenager or even a teenager did you think your parents and your school teachers were old? I certainly did when in fact they were only about 30 years my senior. Now my grandchildren must think that I am elderly even though I mostly think and feel that I have a young heart!
The Psalmist speaks about three score and ten as a generous allotment of years for man. The elderly that I work with, average more than four and a quarter score years.
People of such an age have experienced so much of life and have lived through one of the most spectacular periods of human history, especially in terms of technical development. Think of: transport from the horse and gig to the sophisticated modern car; the modern motorways whereas for pioneer NZ'ers the highway was a waterway; the sailing and steam vessels to the modern ship; the present airliners that can whisk one from the other side of the world in a matter of hours; the space travel; morse code telegraph to telephone and now satellite-assisted messages by cell-phone and faxes; computers and word processors. Some of my 'family' having emigrated from the United Kingdom, have lived through two world wars, experiencing them close at hand.
For all the sophistication of modern life the moral standards are still the same and just as neglected as ever. The eternal truth remains the same, that there is no other name under heaven, given among men by which we must be saved than the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
I am thankful that, as a child of God, I have the opportunity each day to live by God's grace, and in my conduct to show that God is real and very much alive. God is important in my life and I enjoy communion with Him each day. I cherish for myself that I am a new creation in Christ and I pray that those around me will also see that, including the elderly with whom I have so much to do.
The Chaplain's Role
In that I am a chaplain to residents and patients in a rest home and geriatric hospital my big family is somewhat older than am I. When new residents in particular come to us already in their eighties or even nineties, even when they have been lifelong members of the church, they may not have attended church for ten or perhaps even twenty years because of their age, or frailty, or limited mobility. The chaplain's task is to bring the church to them and that in a variety of ways. He is an ambassador of Christ and then also of the Church of Christ at large. The personal presence, the spoken Word, the conversation in private or in group devotional time, the prayers, the organised worship services are all ways in which that consciousness of the Church on earth is aroused and the assurance of the Head of the Church reaffirmed – "I will never leave you nor forsake you."
When people come new to us as residents it is often through much trauma and change that has been thrust upon them. There may be a multitude of reasons for this. They may not have been adequately consulted about their placement, or others may have made the decisions in view of the circumstances and they have not yet acknowledged those circumstances. They may have been discharged from hospital after a stroke, or an accident, or drug regime adjustment, but have been unable to return to live independently, as before, in their own home. Frequently it is because their spouse has recently died and that that mutual assistance is no longer there, or the spouse is as dependent upon the help of others as they themselves now are.
Often the acceptance to the home has finally come at short notice. "There is a room available. Will you take it, or do we offer it to another?" Sometimes the process means reducing, and this within the space of a few days, a whole furnished house down to the space of one small room. Only the personal effects, the treasures, and the furniture that will fit into that small space are retained. All else must be disposed of, sometimes in haste and sadly, sometimes to the tip. In all these situations there is change, in many loss, and grief because of the loss of home and possessions of immense sentimental value. There is the challenge of assisting residents with their grief and personal loss.
Some rest homes go for plush furnishings, beautiful decor and expensive facilities. But home is more than all those things. Home involves an atmosphere and we endeavour to create an atmosphere, a friendly, hospitable atmosphere shaped by caring service inspired by the love of Jesus. To this end the staff must work as a team which is a challenge in itself. The residents themselves must also contribute to that atmosphere by being understanding, welcoming and friendly and also appreciative. It is a joy to see people settling in and owning the home as theirs.
Memory is a wonderful thing. Our senior citizens, in many cases, have lives of such rich experiences. Service men and women, engineers, farmers, sports people from the top echelons, nursing sisters, missionaries, ministers, business people, journalists, housewives etc. but as yet no politicians that have identified themselves. It is extremely interesting to stir those memories and as a listener to learn. Fortunately time often erases the memory of the harsh, the sad, and the tragic events while the beautiful and the positive are the things that remain.
Each living soul bears the image of their Creator. This is the uniqueness of our humanity. It is for this reason that I must treat the elderly with respect. But advanced age can play tricks with personality, making it difficult to see the real person. In their lives I have come on the scene only very late. What are the things that warp that personality? The sheer weariness of age. The diseases of age such as Parkinsons, Alzheimers and dementias. The effects of strokes whether mild, multiple or dense. Memory losses. The side-effects of therapeutic drugs. But underneath that buckled facade is a person whom God has planted in this world, in the circle of a family and of society, and has put upon my pathway. So often I have to remind myself that "there go I but by the grace of God" and that in a few years time I may be like that person. Let me not ignore or disdain those people but treat them as God's children, as valued members of the family of mankind.
The Challenges of Teaching about the Lord
This however presents many challenges. I want them to know the Lord Jesus who, in His compassion, has saved me when I deserved only His disapproval, and more, His wrath. The means I use are: interesting and challenging Bible readings in a group context and in conversation. Each day we commend one another to the grace of God. There are short services where we focus on the grace and patience of God shown in the earthly presence of Jesus Christ. There are communion services where we reflect upon the covenant pledges of God to us and our responses to Him when we receive the elements of holy communion.
Most elderly live with an awareness that the oil in the crucible of life is running out, and usually they are very realistic about their own end. Some are puzzled, even disappointed that their own sons and daughters or grandchildren die while they continue on. I often stir the awareness of the future and remind them that for the believer it will be wonderful even beyond our ability to conceive (For eye hath not seen etc). This is an opening to underline the Bible statement that there is only one Name under heaven whereby we might be saved. Sensitive and open discussion about death, often stimulated by the death of a fellow resident is important. Deaths are inevitable, as are funerals. Funerals are a challenge, in that grieving relatives and friends attend – succeeding generations are represented. As well as reflecting on the divine gift of life, it is a time to expose people to the beautiful treasure of grace in the Gospel, if only briefly, so that mourners can take with them a message of challenge, comfort and hope for themselves.
It is extremely gratifying: to ease someone out of deep depression by careful discussion before the Lord and by prayer to the Master Physician; to note and respond to an enquirer who is seeking answers to life's most important quest and see that person accepted into communion in Christ's Church on earth literally in their last weeks on earth; to lift the horizons of a patient so that they see purpose and meaning in life again, in spite of sickness and disability; to facilitate the writing of a life's story or a facet of that life; to aid someone in collecting their thoughts and recording them on paper for the constructive reflection of others.
One of the joys I often have is to sit with a brother or sister in the Lord Jesus Christ, and contemplate with them some of the glories and the rewards of grace that are stored up for those who are preserved to the end. For some that reality cannot come soon enough. How beautiful that contemplation can be!
But my greatest joy is to share knowledge of the unsearchable riches that belong to those who are in Christ and for me to observe the fresh excitement, or the dawning awareness of this.
I have in my enlarged family a wonderful body of people with rich experiences. Each one is a potential trophy of grace. In my one-eyed appraisal I consider my work to be within the best Rest Home/Geriatric Hospital in New Zealand, and this I count as a tremendous privilege. Saying that, it would be wonderful if every reader of this who is either a resident/patient, or a relative of one, could respond in protest to claim that theirs is the best! It is our responsibility to hold and treat our senior citizens with respect and love, and this so that men may see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven.