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The time of our lives

27 January 2017

At Candlemas, Pat Ashworth reports on a new movement dedicated to the spiritual care of older people. It has been named after the prophetess Anna

Debbie Thrower

Crafty blend: “Messy Vintage” combines craft, worship, and eating together, which is being developed with volunteers in both care-home and community settings

Crafty blend: “Messy Vintage” combines craft, worship, and eating together, which is being developed with volunteers in both care-home and...

RARELY a day goes by without refer­ence to the demographics that confirm the rising proportion of older people in society, and its implications for the future. Much of the public debate is concentrated on how the NHS will cope, and what it will take to ensure the best social care of older people.

Their spiritual care is seen as an area that is undervalued rather than neglected. A good deal of care, es­­pecially of older people by older people, happens informally and below the radar. But a more inten­tional, collegiate approach is em­­erging, which has much to do with the attitudes and expectations of the baby-boomer generation, the oldest of whom are now beginning to experience frailty and greater de­­pend­­ency.

”It is a generation who have had enormous advantages, as well as some difficulties, and who are used to trying to make sense of the world they find themselves in,” Debbie Thrower says. She is a former jour­nalist and broadcaster, and is now full-time team leader of the Bible Reading Fellowship’s (BRF) initiat­ive the Gift of Years, dedicated to promoting the spiritual welfare of older people. “We have been a privileged generation, and now that we are approaching old age, we don’t want to go out with a whimper.”


CREATING opportunities for older people to talk about their life experi­ences brings about a developing completeness: a sense of integrity, and that “our little part is a feature of a much bigger picture,” she says. “And that brings with it a sense of celebration — a legacy of which we can be proud.” She reflects that, compared with the secular world, the Church has found itself on the back foot in terms of addressing the issues of ageing.

”We ought to be really good at helping people to address the issues of later life — especially as we have good news to tell people,” she says. “We have been a little shy about talking about death, and trans­forma­tion, and maturity, and per­cep­tion, and all the things that the Bible does talk about. It’s almost as if we lose our nerve as we grow older, even if we are ministers our­selves, or have been churchgoers for a long time.

”We still have one foot in the secular camp, and worry about it just as much as anyone else. None of us wants to become more depend­ent on others: we all want to be autonomous for as long as we can be, and we all fight against being taken where we don’t want to go.”

The facts, feelings, and memories of people’s experience constitute the stuff of life, and it is by reviewing and making sense of the past that they make sense of where they are on the spiritual journey, the BRF suggests of The Gift of Years. It takes a narrative approach, suggest­ing that, if anyone is an expert in “stories”, it should be the Churches: “After all, it is through reading the Bible, the story of God’s relation­ship with his people over the cen­tur­ies, that we are invited to see ourselves within the over-arching story of humanity, and to step in­­side that narrative ourselves.”


AT THE heart of the initiative is Anna Chaplaincy. Anna Chaplains, of whom Debbie Thrower was the first, are sent out by congregations to work with older people of strong or little faith, or no faith at all, to hear and reflect back their stories and memories, help them to make sense of their identity, and explore together in a non-judgemental way the big questions of life.

The model was developed in Alton, Hampshire, and rose out of a willingness among Christians to work collaboratively across the denominations. They signed an Anglican-Methodist covenant in 2005, and recognised early on that more should be done for older people. A Methodist minister, the Revd Keith Underhill, was involved from the start, and is a member of the Gift of Years advisory group. The burgeoning of care homes in the town had put huge demands on ministers, he says, and there had been a concern that here was a niche of ministry that was not being filled.

”We sat down to think what this ministry must look like to people of all faiths and none,” he remembers. “There were the carers: lowly paid, under huge pressures, grappling with all sorts of issues. There were the relatives. We found people wanted to talk about death and funerals and all sorts of things, and, often, families aren’t very good at that: they’ll brush them off, saying ‘Don’t worry. You’re going to live for ever.’ So someone with time to sit down and understand and go through a whole raft of things was really important.”

Residents had a need to unburden themselves, the Anna Chap­lains discovered. “People conscious­ly ask of themselves in their closing years: ‘Have I led a good life? What difference did I make? What have I contributed?’ Anna Chaplains help people to unpack and unburden and reflect on their lives, which can have added complications if there are regrets or broken relationships or families still fractured.”


THE Revd Helen Jesty has been an Anna Chaplain at Alton since Ms Thrower became leader in 2014, and came from eight years of chaplaincy in a children’s hospice. The work has developed to become distinctive from the part played by a pastoral visitor, she says: the St Martin model of chaplaincy has its location outside the church, “where we are always guests, and we are on the ter­ri­tory of those who are vulnerable”.

The work unearths treasures, she says. Many of these come from the care-home residents themselves, such as 108-year-old Bob, whose reminiscences about the cold bed­rooms of his childhood provided the material for a sermon on the warmth of God’s love. “We used this moving article with memories I knew would be shared,” she remem­bers. “I was genuinely grateful, and thanked him for what he had done for us. We are all part of a team.”

And the generations have much to offer each other, too, from her experiences here. Last year, children from a local school made Easter gardens in a shoebox for every resid­ent, which led to many inter­est­­ing interchanges between old and young. “Old age is something our society has got to come to terms with, big-time,” she says. She is keen to see Anna chaplaincy become embedded throughout the country.


IT WILL soon be embedded in an ecumenical project in Rugby, where the lead chaplain for the Gift of Years in the city, Lyndsay Pelloquin, is developing and training a team of Christians from all traditions to be volunteer chaplains and volunteers in residential care homes. Trained as an occupational therapist in the NHS, she has since worked as a lay chaplain in a hospital, a hospice, and a care home in Leicester.

In hospital, on wards for the elderly, she witnessed the with­drawal of patients into themselves amid the expectation of “wearing a stiff upper lip and being a good patient”, and realised, when she sat down to talk with them, the range of emotions which they were having to cope with. Human issues in a care home have everything to do with loss, she suggests: loss of home, loved ones, friends, independence. And then there are the issues of meaning: “What does my life mean now that I am in a care home?”

”For those who think their life has finished, and who get into the mindset of waiting to die, the role of the chaplain is very much to explore living at this stage of life. We still have some living to do, and how are we going to do it well and meaningfully? This is a real issue for care homes, because the staff and managers are looking at basic needs that focus on personal care.

”But beyond that? They are often busy and short-staffed, and there isn’t time to focus on the higher needs. The work we want to do in Rugby is all around helping to build supportive, stimulating com­mun­ities, where people are still living.

”I think this is a spiritual thing. The love and belonging in a com­munity is something the Church really can offer, because people
who belong to churches under­stand what com­mun­ity means. We can’t look to staff and managers to create it.”

She and her team have witnessed in people — even in some with severe dementia — an awakening that she describes as “moments of wonder”. Music, activities, worship, and celebrations all play their part. But it is the ecumenical dimension of the ministry which serves as a model.

Fifteen years ago, church leaders of every denomination in Rugby experienced what all acknowledged as a move of the Spirit. It led to the group Revive, under which a parti­cu­lar church will take respon­sibility for a project. The Gift of Years is jointly headed by the Roman Cath­olic and Methodist churches under an ecumenical steering group, with Ms Pelloquin, who is RC, employed by the Methodist Church, and supported by an Anglican bene­factor.


EVERYONE engaged in this area of ministry speaks of the two-way street that it can be. “There are a lot of losses in old age, but there are also masses of riches to be gained from the experience of older people and their gifts,” says Canon Joanna Collicutt, a chartered psychologist and consultant clinical neuro­psycho­logist, who lectures in the psychology of religion and spiritual­ity, and is the Oxford diocesan adviser for spiritual care of older people.

”There is the experience from looking back over a lifetime, but also wisdom from living in the last years of life, and the kind of spiritual questioning that goes on at that time,” she says. “So it’s a time of potentially great spiritual growth, which I think perhaps the churches have neglected. There was a lot of informal work caring for people who are ageing, but not a lot of attention paid to how we can learn from them, and how they can minister effectively.”

Her present research work has enabled her to begin to see older people as grassroots theologians, from whom much can be learned. “I would say I work on three Ds: death, discipleship, and dementia,” she says.

”Discipleship is the slightly neglected area of how you help reasonably healthy people just to con­tinue to grow in a way that is not patronising to them, but actually stretches them right up to the end of their earthly life. That’s the area that has probably been neglected. There’s a borrowed phrase that I really like, which is that we should see the last years of life not as a postcript but as a finale.”


ANNA Chaplaincy is spreading, and the Gift of Years network is widen­­ing, to embrace many churches and individuals who have been faithfully ministering in this area for years, such as the ecu­menical lay chaplains Graham Wilkins and Emmeline Barnston, who have worked long-term in the care homes of Cramlington, Northumberland, and describe the min­istry as “very rewarding”.

Then there are the comparative newcomers, such as the Revd Alison Dobell, who came from a south-London parish of mostly young people to work as chaplain to the St John’s Charity in Winchester, which has 81 almshouses, a day centre, and two nursing homes. They all come together at gatherings of the Gift of Years network, which Ms Thrower (now a licensed lay minister in the Winchester diocese) regards as par­ti­cu­larly valuable for those working in isolation.

She sees no reason why the Anna Chaplaincy model developed in Alton could not be replicated far and wide. “When I had the vision for it, I didn’t think I’d be the person that had the job of doing it, but that’s the way it has fallen out,” she concludes.

”My priorities are to be able to respond to the accelerating demand in enquiries from churches, com­munities, and individuals who are sensing their own vocation to this work. And that’s a tremendously exciting thing.”



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