Magazines 2019 Jul - Aug What I learned caring for seniors

What I learned caring for seniors

21 August 2019 By Rev. H. Suzanne Wilkinson

Being a chaplain often involves listening to your heart and being directed by your soul – but also being willing to listen, writes Sue Wilkinson of Toronto.

As a chaplain, I have served in a care facility where my responsibilities were to deliver pastoral care to patients, to their loved ones, and, when appropriate, to care providers and staff.

Chaplains of many faiths work with diverse populations, within various settings. We are tasked with counselling patients undergoing medical procedures, people making decisions towards the end of their life, and team members assisting victims of traumatic experience. We offer comfort and support to all types of patients and aid them and their relatives in finding emotional peace and resolution.

Our role has many facets. Chaplains must genuinely care for others, be approachable, and have excellent interpersonal skills. We must:

  • be able to communicate with people of other faiths and cultures
  • hold themselves to a higher standard of conduct
  • maintain confidentiality
  • be capable of maintaining a calm, effective work style - especially under duress
  • work independently and manage one’s self across multiple responsibilities.

Most importantly, the Christian chaplain must endeavor to listen compassionately, yet perceptibly to patients, while being guided by the Lord in how to act.

Often a well-placed question encourages deeper conversation or perhaps the offer of affirmation and assurance. Where there has been trauma, or if a patient is critically ill, the conversation can become limited. The challenge for a Christian chaplain, therefore, is to reflect the love of Christ without proselytizing. Sometimes, all one can do is to quietly display a peaceful countenance. When genuinely accepted, the reading of Scripture, providing of communion, “anointing the sick” and, offering of prayer, are welcomed privileges of a Christian chaplain.

A chaplain’s role with seniors is vital, especially with those who may feel lonely or depressed. The elderly:

  • enjoy talking about the “old days”.
  • often speak about love— both their good and bad experiences—and perhaps whisper how they learned what love is, and what it is not.
  • share memories of their career, or significant colleagues and friends.  
  •  may discuss their faith or speculate as to why they think others cannot believe in God.

I have been amazed by the resilience of the human spirit and its strength to withstand incredible challenges, with nobility and courage. Most people believe their life has counted, and is worthy of respect, even when they acknowledge the mistakes they have made. At their lowest points, they hope that they are to receive eternal life. Regrettably, Christ's love may not have been accepted. Some will pass, not knowing Christ's love or forgiveness. It is miserable when one dies alone or calls out for someone dear to them. The chaplain is there then, to represent God and mirror Christ's compassion.

Even within the final stages of life, spiritual growth can happen when it is nurtured by informed teaching, nurturing and affirmation. New believers’ welcome services for Easter, Thanksgiving, Remembrance Day, and Christmas. Mature believers engage in Bible studies. When chaplains have opportunities to share God's salvation plan, we must remember that all new life and growth comes from God. Each seed has a unique gestational period. In this, we must surrender our efforts to God, as Salvation comes from Him.

I am comforted by the knowledge that God has a plan for how, when, and where we might utilize the gifts we are given. For me, working out that perceived plan started when I became a registered nurse, long before I entered the ministry. I was ordained a Community Chaplain just over 15 years ago, after precious time spent in child and parent care, a nursing career, and many other life experiences. 

It has been a privilege to share Christ's love, mercy, and forgiveness. God is love. We learn most about God's amazing love when we comprehend the scope of Christ's life and sacrifice. Once we begin to recognize the depth of that unconditional love, we are able to offer it meaningfully. It sometimes takes a lifetime to learn about Christ's kind of agape love. Patients might find it through the genuine love of family, the caring acts of staff, or perhaps the ministry of a chaplain. It is in the presence of unconditional love that hope and faith are renewed or perhaps, born—hope and faith which may give rise to discussions about GRACE: God's Riches at Christ's Expense.

It is wonderful to witness expressions of caring love that reflect that of our Father’s: the husband who gently washes his wife's face, cupping her bald head in his hand because she is too weak to lift it from her pillow; the daughter who spoons soup into the mouth of the mother whom has not recognized her in months, possibly years; the son who tenderly reads a Psalm to his dying father; the co-worker sitting at the bedside of a dear friend, or a nurse who works late offering vital care.

It is disheartening that presently the role of a chaplain is diminishing in long-term care facilities. With budgetary cut-backs, the holistic approach of “body, mind and spirit” is not valued as it was. Medical disciplines have little time for the “art of caring”. Then often, as our society’s attempts to be “politically-correct” or “accepting”, it finds itself rejecting faith practices which have already been in place, at a great detriment to itself. These practices, meant to benefit human society, are being lost to the proposed “efficiency” of a system without them.

Often the service of a chaplain is offered when the days of life are few. Yet even the thief who hung on the cross beside Jesus experienced something of this ministry in our Lord's last hours, when he called out, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth; today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:42-43). These words address the hope of the human heart. We all long for a better life beyond this one. It is the chaplain’s duty to give this hope to those willing to listen.

Serving people in various places, I have learned about the human spirit through patient care visits, speaking commitments, and officiating at funerals, and at weddings. Particularly I have learned about the nature of humanity, our heart and resilience, through treasured pastoral visits. Christ has been ever faithful and willingly present in all of these. I thank Jesus for any ministry I have offered that has had lasting value upon the individuals I have encountered. 

Let me conclude with a caveat. In this essay, I have tried to present some of the goals involved in chaplaincy. I have enjoyed it immensely and hope God has used me in this ministry. Yet I have been aware of my need to have a positive attitude, a sincere willingness to be present, listening skills, relevant medical knowledge, and ability to offer words of comfort and truth, encouragement and affirmation. I have acutely recognized my own limitations and humanity. I am still learning to heavily lean on God's leading. I hope those I have served have a fuller awareness of the love of Jesus. He is nothing less than God who came among us, full of grace and truth. He is the essence of love, fully demonstrated. He is the ultimate healer and the believer's hope of eternity. Therefore, I have worked with the intention to do all these things to the best of my ability through God who strengthens me, and with the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

The role of institutional chaplains may be disappearing, but take heart. This ministry will continue in our communities because all of us can be the fragrance of Christ to others. The torch is passed to whoever is willing to be Christ's “light” in the dark places in the lives of others. Why? Because, 1 John 4:19 reminds us, “We love because he first loved us.” And Christ commanded his followers to “Love one another, as I have loved you” (John 13:34).

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