Is it for you?
It may be that Anna Chaplaincy to older people, which lies at the heart of The Gift of Years initiative, would work well where you live. Perhaps you have a friend or relative in a care home who could benefit, or you just feel passionately that not enough is being done at present to look after the emotional and spiritual side of people facing the challenge of getting older in your church or community.
All of us benefit from someone who will listen as we tell our stories. Recounting the stories of our past helps to foster resilience and hope.
Some people have painful episodes that they live and re-live over and over again in their minds, and a good companion can be of enormous help. We bring comfort to one another when we listen attentively, non-judgementally, and this can help to bring someone to a point of comparative peace of mind.
As we age, and many of our close friends die, our surviving relatives cannot always be on hand, or for that matter be that inclined, to give us the time and space we need for this work of remembering. Remembering is about 're-membering' - a putting together of that which is broken, fragmented, to make 'whole again'. Health, and wholeness, are one and the same thing.
This is where a skilled listener, perhaps an Anna Chaplain to Older People, can help. An Anna Chaplain is dedicated to promoting the spiritual welfare of older people.
The importance of story
One of our key resources as we get older is our life story. The facts, feelings, memories of what we have experienced constitute the very stuff of our life, and are unique to each and every one of us. They are the gifts of our years, the harvest of our life. It is by reviewing and making sense of our past that we make sense of where we are on our spiritual journey, and where we are going. It is one of the key tasks of older age, and this is why a narrative approach to supporting older people in this important life work is so vital.
Identity crisis is by no means restricted to the teenage years of adolescent angst. We all bear the bruises and scars of many sorts of assaults on our identity as we get older: loss of loved ones or our home, or the status we might have derived from our job or career, all of which take their toll on who we perceive ourselves to be, now.
Writer on spirituality and ageing, Elizabeth MacKinlay, describes people's task in old age in these terms: their main work is holding their own story alongside the story of God... How much do people know about the story of God? We are all experts in our own stories but to what extent are people equipped to make connections between their story and God?
If anyone is an expert in 'stories', the churches should be. 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 into the narrative ourselves. And so churches have a key role in helping people review and make sense of their lives.
For example, a woman in her 80s who found some old school reports when clearing out a cupboard wondered whether she had really lived up to her early promise on reading what her teachers had said then. Voicing such misgivings provides a rich opportunity for a sensitive dialogue about life, the choices we make and what will be our legacy.
Useful starting points
Here are some suggested questions/reflections to help to draw people out. They will give you useful starting points for more meaningful conversations.
- Tell me a bit about yourself.
- What's your first memory?
- Where did you meet your wife/husband?
- What did you do in the war?
- In an ideal world, what would you like to be doing now to occupy yourself?
- What would you say you miss most about your close relationships in the past?
- Tell me about your wedding day.
- What do you think when you look in the mirror?
- Is there someone to whom you would like to say sorry?
For those now living in care, you might also ask…
- How much of a say did you have in what you brought with you?
- How much do you think other people understand what it is be old?
- Do you believe in an after-life?
- What does dying mean to you?
- Are you afraid of dying?
- What do you think it will be like to be dead?
- Would you welcome more support from other people - for example, people coming to visit you more regularly?
James Woodward in his book Valuing Age (2008, SPCK) has a useful appendix listing a host of questions to help people articulate what is important to them, what is troubling them, all of which foster self-awareness and so facilitate pastoral care at significant stages of life.