People going into nursing homes fear both loss of independence and having little to do. Some, who are literate, maintain a degree of control by devouring books. On my visits to homes as a volunteer I’ve encountered residents who delight in mysteries or romances. I’m also aware of people who have computer skills and find a goldmine of games and information to sustain them. Those who are wheelchair-bound are able to take part in organized groups, for instance playing bingo or “kick the balloon” (in which a circle of persons kick or push an inflated balloon). Add in those who can do puzzles and/or watch their favorite programs on TV, and those who get regular family visits, and there is something for most nursing-home residents to do at least part of the time.
But there are others whose capacity to function in social contexts or to engage in activities is more limited. Persons with Parkinson’s disease, dementia, weak hearts or diseased lungs come to mind. When I meet such people I try to be there for them by listening to their concerns, or reading to them, or simply honoring their existence with my presence in their room. And I try to discern if they have any kind of spiritual faith. Quite often I find that they do believe in a Higher Power and pray sometimes. Realizing that we have a religious connection, we talk about prayer and what we should pray for. It may be for some family member, a friend they haven’t heard from, their own health or whatever. After a few times of praying together, I begin to tell them who I’m praying for: someone down the hall who is experiencing great pain, or maybe someone in another nursing home who’s feeling low. As the months pass, I bring up some of my personal concerns—an upcoming operation, a hyperactive grandchild, a patient who I don’t understand. In these types of connections life becomes a two-way street. I help them and they help me.
Sometimes residents in a nursing facility have a feeling of worthlessness. They see and hear able-bodied persons moving about with clear-cut tasks to do. If they are confined to bed they sense weakness not only in their bodies but in their souls as well. While they may have many human contacts during the day most of these are quite fleeting. People come in to take their vital signs and leave. Food is delivered by hands that are soon gone. Skilled workers check electronic devices and then move on to the next room. Here and there a kind word or a personal touch graces them like a fresh breeze. But these gestures have to be squeezed into the regular routines of the highly regimented modern medical system. Volunteers can help fill in some of the cracks by spending time with the patients. But even volunteers have a kind of purpose; and they, too, come and go.
A number of patients have confessed to me that they lack purpose. One woman, whose name is Pauline, phrased it like this: “Well, what am I here for? What am I doing here?” I was a bit surprised as this woman had disclosed to me that she had some faith. And yet as I thought of her and others like her I could see where she was coming from. We live in a culture where having some kind of role gives us dignity. Nurse, doctor, social worker, chaplain, nurse’s aide, etc.—these are all jobs or duties that identify us. But “patient”? Sounds like a “roleless” role, often signaling persons who learn to become passive and have lost their independence. Softening the label “patient” to “resident” helps a little. Still there is that reality of being in a spot that few of us, if any, would choose to be in.
Seeing Pauline look and feel so hopeless, I realized there were times she had been helpful to me. Times when we had shared words from the Bible or had prayed together. It dawned on me that she needed a broader sense of purpose and a new label. I told her how much her prayers—and those of others—had helped me in my work. I told her I needed the Spirit of God in me so that I would say the right things to people I was visiting. I invited her to be my prayer warrior on a regular basis. I told her that she had a mission right where she was. Some people travel to Africa or Asia to help others. But her territory was right there. On my weekly visits, Pauline and I pray for our families and friends and then for all those who work, live or visit in the nursing home. She prays as people do at a Southern Baptist revival, which is the Church she belongs to.
Stephanie is another ally. When I first saw her I recognized the symptoms of Huntington’s disease. This is a nasty illness where the limbs flail about and the body has little twitches and turns. Even the eyes and the face move around. Most staff and visitors tend to avoid patients with this condition. Moreover speech is difficult and getting a few words out takes effort. It took a while to get used to one another. But through some eye contact and body language we were able to connect. I invited “Steph” to become a prayer warrior and she has been a steady companion. Each time I visit I thank her for prayers and tell her how she’s helping. Medications she is given tone down the body movements but her attentive stance lets me know she hears me.
Melissa is in her thirties and suffers from cerebral palsy. She spends her days in a wheelchair or in bed. She is able to use one finger of each hand on the keyboard. We pray together or independently for a variety of situations. She has a true warrior’s determination–for her Baptism she requested to be immersed in water while strapped in her wheelchair!
A young man who I’ll call Elmer seems to be largely ignored. He is pale and his head sags while his fingers are gnarled and twisted. I must move in real close to hear him; his voice is quite weak and he’s limited to a few words. But I’ve asked him to pray for me and others and he’s agreed. When I come near, his eyes focus on me. Most of the staff are busy with work and pass him by dozens of times each day. But I’ve entrusted him with an important job and he’s doing it.
There are others who have passed on from this earth and, I trust, rest in peace. Janis, Robert, Claudia, Hazel and Vickie are among them. These graduates have completed their missions and can intercede for us on the front. They and those of us still in the campaign here below are very much a part of the culture of life. Many who are pariahs in these current struggles will be among those blessed in the next stage. God has chosen the weak of this world to pray for his creatures. They are responding in a powerful way. Every person is a vital part of humanity.
Richard Hurzeler writes from Tyler,TX