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Interview: Margaret Hollands, Anna Chaplain

10 July 2020

‘Jesus never turned away people who were ill, and nor should we’

An Anna Chaplain is authorised to minister and lead pastoral teams for older people, often with a focus on those who are living with dementia, and their families. Most Anna Chaplains are volunteers, although they may be able to claim some expenses from their church. The chaplaincy is ecumenical, and part of the Bible Reading Fellowship (Features, 27 January 2017).

I’ve been a Reader for over 20 years, and also minister in the school communities where I taught before I retired. Many of us give two or three days a week to our work. “Anna Friends” — volunteers from all walks of life who aren’t licensed for authorised ministry — may give one or two days a week.
 

Everyone’s ministry will be slightly different. Mine could be taking home communion to individuals; visiting care homes to take a communion service or lead a dementia-friendly service; running a group for people who are on their own; helping at the Dementia Café; or just visiting people. Some chaplains run carers’ support groups and many other activities: the list’s never ending.
 

I first became involved with dementia after my dad was diagnosed with the disease. There didn’t seem to be anything for him, and we really struggled as a family. After he died, in 2012, I decided to find out as much as I could to help others.
 

Anna Chaplains have been fundamental in bringing the Church into caring for people with dementia and supporting them. People didn’t know how to talk to my dad when he came to church; so they tended to ignore him. I’m also a Dementia Champion, raising awareness of dementia in the community, and helping people to understand and communicate with dementia sufferers and their carers better.
 

Sometimes I describe dementia as being bereaved twice. You actually lose the person you loved because they change. It depends what sort of dementia, and how far they are along the path they are, but they forget who you are, and don’t understand what they’re doing. It’s not that person: it’s the illness that’s making them the way they are. If they become violent, they may have to go into care for everyone’s safety.
 

I’m sure God doesn’t mind if people don’t realise what’s happening when I give them holy communion. I’m with them there because everybody is important to God. It doesn’t matter who they are, or what stage of life they’re at. Jesus never turned away people who were ill or on the fringe of society, and nor should we. I hope, if dementia came to us, that there would be people there to take care of us, as we try to do that for others now.
 

Now we’re all having to adapt and be creative in how we support people. Although it’s possible to use technology to keep in touch, by holding virtual coffee mornings using Zoom, and holding services using WhatsApp or YouTube, and we’re meeting regularly as a ministry team via WhatsApp, this isn’t always possible for some of those we’d normally visit.
 

When we sent out our first letter about the church closing, we included names and phone numbers of the ministry team and others who could be contacted, showing that the church is still there for people. All our congregation and those we visit receive at least one phone call a week from one of the ministry team.
 

We’ve delivered service leaflets for use on a Sunday, emailing those who can receive them that way, keeping in touch by phone with people who can’t. We’re keeping in contact with our care homes; collecting prescriptions or getting shopping; and praying for everyone.
 

We’re a good team, and, although learning all the new technology has been a steep learning curve for me, a lot of people are joining in. People all realise that this is what we have to do to keep safe and beat this virus.
 

I don’t think there has been a conscious neglect of elderly people during this crisis. I’m part of the local Dementia Action Alliance and the Alzheimer’s Society: we often petition our MPs to look at care homes and dementia issues, and I always get replies. I think they are addressing them, but we don’t always hear what’s going on.
 

When this is over, though, more people may appreciate the needs of our elderly community who live alone and are housebound, because they’ll have experienced the feelings of isolation and not being able to see family and friends.
 

Taking funerals now is one of the hardest things, though I really try to make sure I’m giving the same standard of care. We have to do all the planning and gathering information by email and phone calls. You can’t put the personal touch to the service, or give the family a hug or handshake, and they will be sitting far apart from each other, not even able to hold each other’s hands.
 

It’s also difficult for the families who can’t say goodbye to their loved ones properly. In many cases, they’re unable to attend the service; so I’ve put together a funeral service that I can email them that they can use at home.
 

I grew up in Bexleyheath, and belonged to Christ Church until I went to teacher-training college in Lincoln. Now, I live in Hoo St Werburgh, on the Hoo peninsula, not far from Rochester — where we’ve been for over 30 years — with my husband, Mick. I open the curtains in the morning and see the church and the River Medway, and it’s beautiful. My son and his family live here, and my daughter and her family live on Sheppey.
 

I always went to Sunday school as a child, but my first experience of God was during my time in the youth group at Christ Church. We had a young curate who offered Bible studies and discussions, and that led to me being confirmed by Bishop David Say, a gentle giant.
 

My faith has continued to develop over the years, and there have been many times when I felt God walking alongside me. I was at West Malling Abbey at a particularly difficult time, and, walking though the grounds with the daffodils all around and the rain pouring down and offering all my worries to God, I almost felt them lifting from my shoulders, and a feeling of peace came over me. It was after this I was prompted to train for lay ministry.
 

Going back to study as a Reader in 1997 while still working as a deputy head, and then preaching my first sermon, took some courage. And abseiling when away with ten- and 11-year-olds from school, and trying not to show how scared I was.
 

People being unkind to others, or using bad language, make me angry.
 

Being with my family, especially the grandchildren, makes me happy; or being on holiday and walking along a beach. I would love to go to Lindisfarne.
 

There is always hope. There is a lot of goodness and kindness in the world, and maybe this current situation has brought some of that to the fore.
 

Prayer is how we talk to our heavenly Father. We can talk to him about anything: our families, our communities, our world and the people in it and their needs, and for guidance in whatever we’re undertaking on a particular day.
 

I’d love to have my five-year-old grandson with me if I was locked in a church. But one of my favourite books is Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë; so perhaps Jane. She didn’t have an easy life, but she never gave up, and always looked forward to what might come. Even with all that befell her, she stayed strong and focused, and came out even stronger in the end.

 

Margaret Hollands was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

annachaplaincy.org.uk

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