OF ALL the people affected by the events of the past two years, care-home residents have, arguably, suffered more than most.
With residents unable to see family or friends, and often confined to their rooms with only care-home staff for company — not to mention the toll on their physical and mental health — working and ministering in this sector has had more than its fair share of challenges.
Thankfully, the opportunities for pastoral visiting and holding services in care homes are opening up again, albeit in a piecemeal way.
Julia Burton-Jones leads Anna Chaplaincy training at the Bible Reading Fellowship (BRF), and recruits and supports Anna Chaplains and Friends in Rochester and Canterbury dioceses. “It’s amazing how varied the stage of re-engagement is,” she says.
“Some people have been welcomed back in; they’re taking services, spending time with individuals, and there’s a feeling of having returned to something of the pattern of before — although it’s cloaked with a heightened risk-assessment and awareness of infection control.
“In other settings, it’s proving quite hard to penetrate that wall of protectedness that the pandemic caused.
“And there’s something in between [with] care homes that want the churches back, and put things in place, but then there’s an outbreak of Covid, norovirus, or other infectious disease, so it’s a bit stop-start.”
How ready the welcome is for visits or services may depend on how spiritual care is perceived, Mrs Burton-Jones says: one home responded to a request for a visit from a chaplain with, “We’re not having entertainment yet.”
Embracing Age, a charity that works to encourage, support, and resource churches to adopt their local care home, is seeing the same mixed response.
Embracing Age Some of the bags given by Embracing Age volunteers to thank care-home staff in the pandemic
The charity’s impact and communications officer, Sarah Waller, says: “We are getting volunteers back in. [But] now the national restrictions have ended, it’s really up to the individual care home what they want to maintain. So, some . . . might not be requiring testing, whereas others might be; some might be more relaxed about physical contact and masks, [while] others might still have restrictions in place.”
In Richmond-upon- Thames, where Embracing Age employs a project co-ordinator to recruit and support volunteers, “We have around 20-plus care homes. Each has a different set of rules, so we have to let our volunteers know separately what they need to do in each place. That is challenging, but it definitely feels like it’s going in a good direction now, and the number of volunteers we’re being able to send in is accelerating.”
DURING the pandemic, church volunteers and chaplains had to be creative to maintain a connection with the care homes they visited. Many livestreamed services, and some held them outside. Elizabeth Bryson, an Anna Chaplain in Maidstone, Kent, developed the idea of giving services to individual residents over the phone, in addition to Skype services, but she has now largely been able to return to visits, although some restrictions remain.
Some responses developed during the pandemic may inspire other churches in their post-pandemic work. Embracing Age developed a variety of initiatives in 2020 for care homes during closures, including goodie bags for staff. On the Isle of Wight, where they also employ a regional co-ordinator, volunteers made bouquets for care homes from discounted flowers donated by Tesco — a project that is set to continue, thanks to a grant from a local trust.
BRFAlison Beek, who works for BRF, gives her mother a socially distanced “hug” during the pandemic
It is also the case that some churches involved in the past are finding it difficult to rebuild their in-person care-home ministry, and many are now stretched for resources. “Previous volunteer teams are taking time to rebuild: people have got different priorities, or have moved away,” Mrs Waller says.
To that end, Embracing Age offers resources to enable church volunteers to minister at whatever level they can manage, including training, webinars, and e-books with ideas for reaching out. Its most recent book, written by the charity’s director, Tina English, is A Great Place to Grow Old: Re-imagining ministry among older people.
Even small gestures can make a difference, Mrs Waller says. “All these things are so deeply impactful. It gives a sense of connection, so [people] don’t feel forgotten.”
PARCHE, a charity supporting volunteers from 30 churches in 62 care homes in Eastbourne, East Sussex, also offers training and support to help churches develop care-home ministry — including on how to plan and hold services; in pastoral care and in responding to those with dementia.
The founder of PARCHE and chair of trustees, Buddy Reeve, says that the need for Christians to be involved in care-home visiting and ministry is pressing. “People in care homes are needing spiritual food and their faith to be encouraged if they’re already Christians. It’s very lonely for a Christian when they go into a home: they can’t get to their church fellowship any more.
“And there are many, many residents who do not have a faith in Jesus Christ, and have no hope in their hearts, and are frightened of dying. There’s such an opportunity to bring the gospel, but also to bring comfort and hope to people.”
Care-home ministry is a gift that anyone can offer, Mrs Waller says. “It is about showing God’s love to the older generation, who often seem to be the most overlooked and often stigmatised. These are God’s children, just as much as any of us, and they are so loved. . . We need to show them that they are still a valued part of our communities.”
FOR churches interested in care-home ministry, one factor to be aware of is the current capacity of staff to manage visits, given ongoing issues in staffing and recruitment.
Embracing Age Jude Blair, a care-home volunteer for Embracing Age
“Teams haven’t had space to recover from what has been a very traumatic two years. We’re trying to balance . . . validating the experiences of the staff, but at the same time advocating for the residents, for whom the lack of spiritual care has been hugely detrimental,” Mrs Burton-Jones says.
Many vacancies in the sector are for activity staff, who would often work with the visiting chaplains or church groups going in. “If there’s a vacancy for an activity organiser, it’s quite hard to know who to talk to, and how to set up the visit.”
Don’t give up if that is the case, Mrs Burton-Jones urges. “Some people, getting no answers and not managing to secure invitations back, have now got back in. So we encourage patience and perseverance.”
It will also take time for new volunteers to build relationships and trust with both residents and staff. This is the case even for church volunteers returning to homes that they have visited for years.
Jude Blair, a care-home befriender with Embracing Age, has returned to visiting her care home once a week in Hampton, Greater London. “It was hard when I first went back. For somebody living with dementia, if you haven’t seen them for over a year they have no recollection of you at all. So, you have to rebuild those connections,” she says.
“A lot of residents don’t understand how I know their names. A lady regularly used to say to me, ‘Why are you here, have you a parent here?’ because your face looks familiar: that’s the sort of thing you encounter.”
IN TERMS of what is appropriate to include in care-home visiting, Mrs Blair says that she takes her cues from the home. “You have to take instructions from the staff when you’re there. I always ask.” For example, for volunteers who can offer hand massages, “you have to check with the care-home manager that a person is comfortable with that.”
Questions about death and dying are often pressing, Mrs Burton-Jones says. “Care homes are increasingly becoming centres of end-of-life care. A lot of people go in at the very end of life; especially now, we’re hearing from the sector that a lot of people are very reluctant to place a family member in a care home.”
Embracing Age An Embracing Age volunteer connects with a care-home resident
In these cases, trained church volunteers and chaplains can help with the conversations that staff may be too busy, or feel unqualified, to have. “If you’re a regular visitor, and trusted by the staff and family, over time you might be entrusted with some of those conversations, and then you work with the staff to help them understand and document some of that.”
“It is a very rewarding thing to do,” Mrs Blair says, of her five years spent visiting her local care home. “You’re there because you want to be, but I get a huge amount of enjoyment. I’ve learnt so much.”
Mrs Reeve, who still leads worship services for residents, many of whom were brought up going to Sunday school, says: “I love it. It’s a tremendous blessing and privilege to be able to go in, and the residents are so grateful.”