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Interview: Julia Burton-Jones, Anna Chaplaincy Lead, Bible Reading Fellowship

05 August 2022

‘I enjoy being with people with dementia — their vulnerability often makes them very honest’

Anna Chaplaincy was pioneered in Alton by Debbie Thrower in 2010, and became a national ecumenical initiative under BRF [the Bible Reading Fellowship] in 2014. We offer spiritual care to older people of strong, little, or no faith, especially people with frailty and dementia, wherever they live [Interview, 19 December 2014; Feature, 27 January 2017].

Our 250 chaplains are lay or ordained, and commissioned and supported by their local church. Some are paid, and some voluntary. We can’t offer everything an older person may need; so we work with other organisations offering specialist help and support — for example, setting up a group based in a church with a secular agency, encouraging people to use local services, bringing professionals to our groups, and establishing walking groups.

Older people are good at supporting one another, too, and our groups facilitate that.

During the pandemic, a lot of people lost all sense of being part of the community, and belonging is a spiritual need, too. Doctors’ social-prescribing schemes need groups in the community, and they’re really happy to work with church groups. The Church proved itself a very effective support through things like foodbanks in the pandemic, without pushing its agenda.

I studied social administration and sociology at Bristol. I learned how families care for older people, the psychology of ageing, and the reality of ageism. Learning about social injustice and welfare fired my interest.

People fascinate me, and the dynamics in relationships. My student community-action was visiting a frail woman in a nursing home, which was a formative experience.

Dementia asks who we are as individuals, and what matters in life: why we value people, what they have to offer. I’ve learned that it’s not just about what you contribute economically, but who you are as a person that gives you value.

I enjoy being with people with dementia — it’s hugely rewarding. Dementia changes the way they see the world. It’s novel, interesting. Their vulnerability often makes them very honest and willing to engage in ways they may not have been before. They’ve learned the value of conversation for conversation’s sake — there’s richness of interaction instead of functional exchange.

It does require patience and, of course, it’s easier for me. It may be distressing for family and friends. I’m happy to be with someone, sometimes without communicating verbally. It’s a good discipline.

Anna Chaplaincy is person-centred. We don’t make any assumptions about people’s lives; but social psychologists would say there are life tasks that change with age. We try to understand those psychological and spiritual tasks, and accompany people as they make sense of it, though they’re unique to each person. We train people to ask: “How has your perspective changed? What’s important for you now?”

People are more reflective in their later years. They have more space and time, and a lot of life to reflect on. They’re often very articulate, and have a strong interior life — much more ready to voice what’s important to them. They want to understand what life’s been about.

You’re learning all the time about your future self and how life will be. It’s reassuring to talk to survivors who have been through losses but still carry on with a lot of altruistic focus.

My university church funded me to work at the Jubilee Centre: a Christian social-reform organisation, where I met Simon. When he began his training at St John’s College, Nottingham, I approached Scripture Union’s Training Unit, because by then my work was training churches about family carers.

The Relationships Foundation was another Jubilee Centre initiative, and I focused on relationships and the importance of relational care for older people. I wrote From Generation to Generation; our research resulted in a project to raise awareness in churches of informal or family carers’ needs.

I also worked with Action for Family Carers on how churches might support carers by signposting local services and contributing support themselves. Communities, neighbours, friends, relatives, and churches are essential scaffolding of support for the very old.

I met Chris and Brenda Baalham there. Brenda had rheumatoid arthritis, and Chris had given up paid work to care for her and their children. Brenda wrote a book about Christian carers, One in a Million. Being a family carer can be a lonely experience; so I set up the Carers Christian Fellowship.

I worked with the Relatives and Residents Association, and later with Care UK, Dementia UK, and Dementia Pathfinders. I wanted to train health and care staff about the needs of older people and family carers. My colleagues were passionate about person-centred care, and I met dedicated care staff, highly skilled, yet poorly paid and undervalued.

A focus on faith and spirituality was rarely present; so, through Anna Chaplaincy, we’re seeking to ensure that the spiritual dimension isn’t lost. Faith can be a source of resilience.

Since I first began working on ageing, the global population has aged considerably. In 1989, the UK had 230,000 people aged 90 and over. In 2019, it was 605,000.

There’s also an increase in dementia. Since the first National Dementia Strategy in 2019, we’ve improved rates of diagnosis, raised awareness, and reduced stigma, but I still see ageism in society and the Church. We don’t value older people sufficiently, and the contribution of informal carers is worth far more, financially, than what the NHS and local authorities provide; so we must give them the support and income they need.

I’ve learned that how we live in our middle years can influence our later self. I had pre-diabetes; so I decided to do something about it: change my diet and do more exercise. But I’m privileged to be enabled to make those choices. People living with poor housing, mental-health [problems], low income, shouldn’t be made to feel that their health problems are their own fault. Health issues in some parts of our diocese mean people’s experience of ageing is very different, and some people’s lives will be shortened. It’s not about the choices you make but the advantages you have.

I’ve learned that what really matters is the relationships that sustain us. It prompts me to prioritise spending time with people.

I was the eldest of seven children, two of whom were adopted. My parents ran Crusader classes [now Urban Saints]; so my house was often full of young people. Now, our two adult children have left home, and Simon is Bishop of Tonbridge and working very long hours; but our home’s used for meetings and hospitality. I feel blessed to have lived in some wonderful places.

My dad read me bedtime stories and prayed with me. Patricia St John’s stories are my earliest memory of learning about God. Growing up with Christian parents is a gift.

My faith’s been mediated through the experiences of others. It’s changed over the years, through the ups and downs of life and between churches through Simon’s ministry.

I enjoy reading contemporary fiction, listening to music, and watching documentaries and Scandinavian box-sets on television to relax.

Prejudice makes me angry. Poverty and deprivation of those who lack power in our world. Where those in power abuse their authority. When children and vulnerable adults are abused.

Being with my close family and friends makes me happy, and worshipping with Christians from all over the world — a foretaste of heaven. I’ve been looking forward to the Lambeth Conference for this reason.

I relish being in the quietness of my home and listening to birdsong all around.

Seeing the kindness and generosity of other people who put the needs of others before their own gives me hope. I recognise the love of God in acts of kindness which give me a vision of a better world and the coming Kingdom.

My most regular prayers are for the people I’m close to, and current world issues; but I am praying hard at the moment for my church, which is hoping to have its first building soon. We live in a new town, Kings Hill, and I worship at St Gabriel’s, which currently uses primary-school halls for services. The diocese of Rochester plans to put a building in the centre of our community, which should open in 2023.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Anna. She’d have an amazing story of faith to share, and would be an incredible role model of living with purpose in later life.

Julia Burton-Jones was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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