Like the rest of the world, I’m feeling unsteady in this weird social-distancing reality. For me, the main effect (so far) has been a hard stop to all spiritual-care visits to the dear elders in the three communities where I work. All I can do is pray for them — and for the hardworking staff who continue to show up and care for these vulnerable seniors every. single. day.
So I was incredibly delighted to get this email today from Brittany at Fairfield Park, a long-term care home in Wallaceburg, Ontario:
Your website is such an amazing resource. With the COVID-19 causing our homes to restrict visitors we have had to stop all worship services and bible studies and move to a 1-1 approach. I found your website yesterday and I am blown away with the content. I see that most of these bible studies can be done 1-1, however if you have anything that you suggest for short 5-10 minute visits I would love to hear it! Our staff, who are not trained chaplains, will be conducting some spiritual care in the coming weeks so I want to arm them with as much information as I can.
I am so moved that, with everything else going on and a million priorities to address, this staff is still stepping up to provide spiritual care for their residents. For Brittany and others, my prayer is that these ideas will be a blessing to your staff as well to the residents.
What nursing home staff can do
Here are ways you can spend just a few minutes encouraging and blessing an elder with dementia. Keep in mind that you don’t have to share their faith background; this is simply about loving them where they’re at.
Discover someone’s spiritual life
Set aside any other task for 5-10 minutes and get to know a person’s “spiritual landscape.” Depending on their level of communication ability, ask them questions (and really listen to the answers) about their lives:
- Tell me about where you grew up.
- Tell me about your favorite people in the world.
- What makes you the most happy these days?
- What are things that concern you?
Having a conversation like this is a form of spiritual care because it pays attention to, and therefore values, realities beyond the physical. We can get so caught up in very real and necessary physical needs (showering, eating) that we neglect nurturing people’s (and our own) spirits — what they’re feeling, where they turn for comfort, what makes them rejoice or weep.
Offer to say a simple prayer out loud with them. This is simply speaking to God — nothing fancy 🙂 Keep it short — even 30 seconds. If allowed under health guidance, ask if you can place your hand on their head or shoulder. Ask God to bless and provide them with comfort, healing, and peace. If you can, include something specific they shared with you — even if you know it isn’t real (such as “I’m worried about my mother, who’s been sick”).
Here’s a sample script (using “Judy” as an example):
- “May I pray for you right now?” [In my experience, never once has anyone refused this.] “Heavenly Father/God, I ask you to bless Judy with your peace and comfort. Send your Spirit to care for Judy and everyone that she loves. Help Judy know that you are with her and how much you love her. Please take away any worry or pain [you can be specific here: “any pain in her back, the discomfort in his stomach”], and give Judy everything she needs right now and today. Thank you for your love and care. In your holy name we pray, Amen.
Talk about scripture together
Spend a few minutes going over a single verse or section of scripture. My Bible studies can get you started — just pick and choose whatever question(s) you like. I encourage you to take an actual Bible with you and look it over together. Even if the person can’t read anymore or see the text, the sensation of holding a Bible together can be very comforting.
Psalm 23:1 is always a sure bet. You can easily spend 5-10 minutes on this verse alone! Here’s a sample script:
- Let’s look at maybe the most well-known section in the entire Bible, Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Let’s think about this a bit more, OK?
- What does a shepherd do?
- Cares for sheep; how? Food, shelter, keeping away predators, guidance; 24/7, never leaves them
- What are sheep like, physically? What are sheep’s teeth like? What are sheep’s hooves like? How fast are sheep? How bright are sheep?
- Conclusion: sheep are vulnerable!
- What personal pronoun does this verse use? “The Lord is…”
- Not the shepherd or a shepherd, but my shepherd
- Who is the writer talking about as the shepherd?
- The Lord! The Lord is my shepherd: This shepherd, God, knows me, knows you, intimately and personally
- What’s the result of the sheep following this shepherd?
- “I shall not want” — literally, “I shall lack for nothing.” What do you think God provides for us as God’s sheep?
- How does the shepherd feel about the sheep?
- Loves them
- What do we have to do to receive all the benefits that the shepherd provides for the sheep? What is the only thing that sheep can and must do?
- Follow the shepherd! That’s our job, day by day: Follow God, trust God, receive from God all that God wants to give us.
If your resident has zero interest in the Bible, use the spiritual assessment conversation to determine what else might soothe or encourage their soul. You could try slowly reading poetry (I love poems by Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry), passages from Shakespeare, humorous essays (Mark Twain is a favorite), whatever.
Sing, sing, sing!
Finally, MUSIC is wonderful way to spend time with seniors with dementia. Transfer some of my sing-along hymns to your phone or other device, print out a few large-print lyrics if you want, and sing with someone! If you’re about to protest that you don’t have a “good voice,” don’t worry — these recordings do all the work for you 😉
A few classics that nearly everyone knows:
- Amazing Grace
- Doxology (Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow)
- How Great Thou Art
- Jesus Loves Me
- In the Garden
- Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
- This Little Light of Mine
- What a Friend We Have in Jesus
- When the Saints Go Marching In
I would love for others to add their own ideas to this list! Please post a comment below so we can all share and spread creative ways to continue to care for our elders, especially those with dementia, and their caregivers during this uncertain time.